The Jewish Council for the Aging of Greater Washington’s Samuel J. Gorlitz Kensington Clubs held an art show on Jan. 7 that featured projects done by people living with early-stage memory loss as part of a program that aims to destigmatize the condition and provide a positive experience for people living with it.
The art display, which will remain up for around a month, includes a curated selection of the work completed by the program participants over a six-month period during their time at the JCA’s Gaithersburg location. Participants go in up to twice a week and spend four hours with the staff doing programming that includes creating the artwork.
Edith, identified by first name only to protect her privacy, who has been participating in the program for five years, had a great time producing the pieces and bringing one of her friends to the show where she could present the finished products of her labor.
“I think it’s nice to tell other people about it [our artwork] because … it’s kind of the highlight of the day when we come here … after a while, you know each other and … [the] staff is just very kind,” Edith said.
Edith said that the JCA program and all the fun activities they do and the people they meet is the reason why she gets out of bed in the morning, and that it provides such a joy in her life that gets her excited to go about her day.
“[I feel] kind of uplifted, because you have an ordinary day, and then all of a sudden, we’re in a bigger group and these nice ladies always have something fun for us to do … it’s a very positive experience,” Edith said.
And this program, among others that the JCA runs for people with early-stage dementia, is incredibly important to those with the condition because it gives them a social outlet and a way to stimulate their mind, which can become a challenge as people begin to suffer from the effects of memory loss and other similar symptoms.
“People tend to pull away from friends who have memory loss because they repeat themselves and they may not be the same person that you knew originally, and that makes people feel uncomfortable. There are some who really keep that friendship all the way through but there are some that pull away. So, people are really hurting for friendship when they come here,” said Colleen Kemp, director of the Samuel J. Gorlitz Kensington Clubs’ social adult day programs for early-stage memory loss at JCA. “It’s amazing. Even if they’ve been isolated, we want to try to prevent that isolation. They’ll come here and they start coming and seeing their friends every week and it’s just an amazing turnaround.”
Kemp said the programs at JCA for early-stage memory loss follow a philosophy called person-centered programming, where they look at a person’s interest when they fill out the paperwork to join the program and work to ensure that the activities that the group does has a basis in their interest.
“One of the most important pieces of paperwork is a leisure interest survey. Then they tell us what they’ve done in the past, what they’re doing now and maybe something that they’d like to learn how to do, and we always hope that art is mentioned in there somewhere,” Kemp said. “We have people here who are doctors, lawyers, professors, chemists. They’ve worked really hard their whole life and did not have a lot of time for art. And they’ll say, ‘Oh, I’m not creative.’ And then we’ll say, ‘Well, let’s just try this and see how it goes.’ And it’s amazing what they can produce. And I think they’re amazed as well.”
All of the wonderful productions they put out also serve another purpose of breaking down a lot of stigmas around people living with dementia and the perceived limitations that people may think they have, according to Kemp.
She added that people often consider the term dementia to have very negative connotations historically, and that many people often don’t realize the meaningful and happy lives that people with dementia can have after their diagnosis.
“They’re not defined by their diagnosis … That’s part of why they’re here. No one is forced to be here. They all choose to be here. And we do talk about memory loss and how we cope … we hope that our volunteers, people who come in here and interact with them and the people who present [to the group] learn more about early dementia … they learn, and they see that people are thriving, living with that diagnosis and you kind of hope that it [the knowledge about early dementia] catches on,” Kemp said.