Honors students use art to enhance quality of life for Alzheimer’s patients

By:    Date: 08-01-2016

Photos courtesy Dr. Daniel Potts

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Stephanie Grates’ grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease the year she was born, and she spent a lot of time with him and other Alzheimer’s patients as she was growing up.

Still, she says the Virtual Dementia Tour she experienced as part of a University of Alabama honors course changed her perspective of people living with the disease. “For four long minutes, my ears were flooded with static, my fingers were taped together, my vision was blurred with foggy glasses and my feet were encased in cornfilled shoes,” says Grates, a sophomore majoring in anthropology. “We were verbally presented with a list of five tasks and sent into a room to try to complete these tasks. It was very hard to cope with these restrictions for just four minutes, and it is hard to comprehend how challenging it must be to live with these every day.”

The tour is part of training students enrolled in UH 300 Art to Life undertake before they begin assisting dementia patients in art-therapy sessions and recording their life stories.

“The main goals are to honor, validate and promote the dignity of persons with dementia and to develop empathy for them – and for anyone with a disability – so that we grow as persons who can effect culture change in our society to combat stigma associated with dementia and disability,” says Dr. Daniel Potts, who teaches the Art to Life course and is a clinical adjunct assistant professor in UA’s College of Community Health Sciences and attending neurologist at the Tuscaloosa VA Medical Center.

Potts created the course after his father, who had Alzheimer’s, died in 2007. “Anytime I tell anyone about Art to Life I have to tell them about my dad,” Potts says. “I started Art to Life based on my dad’s story. I have to talk about him because he is the inspiration for the program.”


UA students [l-r] Jacqueline Harris, Taylor Sheeran and Seth Chauhan with Dr. Daniel Potts and an Art to Life program participant. ABOVE: UA student Amanda Altgilbers [left] writes down life-story details while student Maggie Holmes assists with an art-therapy activity.

While Potts’ father had never expressed interest in art, he began attending a dementia daycare center after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and was exposed to art and music therapy. “It completely changed his life,” Potts says. “It improved his behavior, his outlook and gave him a sense of self-worth and dignity.”

Potts’ father stabilized for two years and created more than 100 original watercolor paintings over four years.

To bring similar therapies to people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias, Potts created a nonprofit called Cognitive Dynamics Foundation. UA’s Honors College began partnering with the organization in Spring 2011 to give students an opportunity to work with dementia patients and benefit from the experiences of another generation.

How it Works
Groups of two to four students are matched with participants at the Caring Days Adult Daycare Center in Tuscaloosa and are charged with getting to know their participant, validating and honoring the person in his or her current state and building a relationship with him or her, Potts says.

Theresa Borcky, who has a family history of Alzheimer’s disease, says she was drawn to the class for that reason and because she plans to become a physician and thought the experience would help her develop the empathy and patience doctors need.

She says she looked forward to going to Caring Days every week. “Although my participant would not necessarily remember previous sessions, she seemed to open up more and more as our relationship grew stronger,” says Borcky, a junior majoring in biology. “My participant was 90 years old and seemed to have more energy than anyone in the room. She was ready to do anything, and had such a positive outlook on life. She inspired me to believe the best is yet to come no matter what age and to always be open to trying new things.”


A program participant works on his life-story book.

Diana Yessick, a caregiver for her husband, Jimmy, says the art-therapy sessions have increased his confidence and sense of self-worth. “It is such a wonderful experience for the participant, the students and the families of the participants,” Yessick says. “Although the participants are making works of art, the goal is not to make artists but to stimulate specific parts of the brain and have meaningful human interactions.”

Since Fall 2011, 100 honors students have worked with 31 Alzheimer’s patients through the Art to Life class. The course, which is open to students of all majors, is now offered every semester as a 300-level honors seminar with a writing designation. During weekly class meetings on campus, students learn about cognitive impairment through the lenses of science, care giving and art therapy. They then use this knowledge to assist in weekly, hour-and-ahalf- long, art-therapy sessions with Alzheimer’s patients who share their life experiences while creating art. Students record the patients’ stories and use the information to develop a life-story book for each participant. At the end of the semester, students present leather-bound books and participants’ framed artwork to patients and their families during a celebration at the University Club near the UA campus.

In class at UA, students explore the latest research regarding dementia epidemiology, causes, symptoms, behaviors, diagnoses and emerging treatments. Potts says he and speakers also teach students about caregiving, how to interact and form a relationship with a person who has dementia, the effects of mindfulness and art therapy and techniques for eliciting, telling and preserving life stories.

At the Caring Days facility, an art therapist leads group sessions designed to tap into imagination and trigger rich reminiscence. Students use a smartphone app to preserve life-story details, photos and videos through Life- Bio.com, which provides a framework for writing and illustrating autobiographies and biographies. In addition to talking with participants, students work with participants’ families to collect information and memorabilia.

“Once we got a lot of information about our participant from his family, creating the life book became simple,” Grates says. “His family gave us a ton of pictures and information about his life, and we incorporated that information into the artwork he made in class. A lot of his art correlated with and showcased different aspects of his life.”

Borcky says her participant’s family also shared photographs and submitted letters to the participant, and her group integrated these things into the life-story book. “I was able to capture important stories my participant would share with us over the course of the semester, and she and her family will now have this book to keep forever with anecdotes from her past.”


UA students [l-r] Elayne Smith, Lauren L’ Etang and Kelsey Ryan with their Art to Life program participant at an event celebrating the initiative’s first five years. Photo by Lane Stafford

Gwendolyn Wilson, a caregiver for her mother, Earline, who attends Caring Days, says elderly people have an abundance of wisdom to share, and capitalizing on their rich history could impact students for a lifetime. “This program enables the participants to feel that they are giving back and what they are saying is important,” Wilson says. “Many older adults are shunned by society and, sadly, by some families, but this program gives them a sense of value and importance.”

During a fall-themed activity, Grates says she asked her participant what his favorite holiday is. “He responded with, ‘a day like today,’” she recalls. “It really made me realize how precious life is and how we should value every day.”

Students turn in weekly journal entries and write longer creative pieces about particular aspects of their experiences.

Borcky says she will continue to reflect on what she learned through Art to Life as she pursues her career in medicine. “It is so important to be able to listen to patients and understand what they are going through,” she says. “It is equally as important to build a relationship with them and allow them to trust you.” She says Art to Life gave her the opportunity to practice all these things.

Documenting, Researching and Expanding
Several UA students have produced films about Art to Life.

In Spring 2015, Lauren Musgrove, a senior majoring in telecommunication and film, created “A Culture of Compassion,” a 10-minute video about Cognitive Dynamics’ Bringing Art to Life program and UA’s Art to Life course. TCF students also created a nine-minute Art to Life promo highlighting service-learning aspects of the course.

During Fall 2012, six TCF 444 Documenting Art to Life students created a 40-minute documentary called “The Art of Healing” about the class and the benefits of art in patient care and lives. Shelby Hadden, director and editor of the film, says the most challenging aspect of the project was choosing which story to tell since there are so many moving parts to the program.

Telecommunication students worked with Dr. Rachel Raimist, an award-winning filmmaker and UA assistant professor of telecommunication and film, to produce the final documentary. The film won Best Director for a Documentary and Best Editing for a Documentary Short at the 2014 Black Warrior Film Festival.

All the films can be viewed on YouTube.

Keisha Carden, a graduate student studying geropsychology, and a student team began conducting research on Art to Life in Spring 2015 under the supervision of Dr. Rebecca Allen, a professor in UA’s psychology department. Students analyzed the Art to Life student experience and presented preliminary findings at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Washington in July 2015 and at the Gerontological Society of America’s annual convention in November 2015.

During the next two years, researchers hope to assess the student, participant and caregiver experiences and publish the findings. The program has been awarded grants from the Alabama Dementia Initiative and the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America to continue research, Potts says.

Cognitive Dynamics also is working to offer the course to other institutions, including sites in Chicago and Memphis.

“Art to Life has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life, and the comments we have gotten from all involved have been overwhelmingly positive,” Potts says. “What a joy it has been to honor my father’s memory and artistic legacy by offering this course.”

In April 2016, an Art to Life Celebratory Gala and one-week art exhibit were held at the UA Ferguson Gallery to mark the first five years of the program. Seventy-five pieces of art by program participants and work by Potts’ father were displayed.

View the video featuring servicelearning aspects of UH 300 Art to Life at youtube.com/watch?v=Eb_ XWqwYDnE. Students must apply the semester before they wish to take the class. For more information, contact Dr. Daniel Potts at dcpottsmd@ gmail.com.