Last week, I found inspiration in a place I least expected to discover it. Words of wisdom were shared with me in a time I most certainly needed to hear them, and I couldn’t help but feel as if they might help someone else.
I am currently working on a multimedia project focused on caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s for my master’s program. I will write more on the subject later, but to summarize for now, I will be telling the story of the day-to-day life of someone who cares for a family member with the disease. My plan is to follow multiple caregivers so that I can show this experience, while at the same time, create a community for them to feel connected to others who are like them.
I have been visiting Caring Days, an adult day care center in Tuscaloosa, in order to build relationships with the caregivers who bring their loved ones there. Clients participate in activities and exercises that help build and retain their cognitive and motor skills. On Friday, I was invited to sit in on an art therapy session with a group of University of Alabama Honors students who attend the sessions once a week for a class called Art to Life. (If you are interested in Art to Life or Cognitive Dynamics, please watch the video below.)
I watched as 95-year-old Mrs. Sarah, who used to paint before the disease stole her ability to do so, painted again. I listened as she recalled memories that she hadn’t visited in years. I had no idea that something so inspiring could come from something as simple as a cake pan filled with shaving creme and food coloring.
After filling the pan with shaving creme, the art therapist asked Mrs. Sarah to pour drops of food coloring over it. The talkative and outgoing woman asked one of the students to help her with the food coloring, a small sign that she was still hesitant. She repeatedly expressed that she missed being able to create art, and although she was very confident in the art therapist, she wasn’t confident in herself as an artist anymore. She was afraid that the skills she once possessed were gone. She feared she had lost them completely, just like many of the memories she longed to remember.
While one student poured the food coloring over the shaving creme, the others asked Mrs. Sarah to talk about her earliest childhood memories, her wedding day and her family. She was excited to share these experiences with the students, and would recall things she said she hadn’t spoken about in years. With each story she told, however, Mrs. Sarah would come to a point that she couldn’t remember, and would become frustrated with herself when she couldn’t bring the memory back or remember the words to say when it did. I watched as this very intelligent woman, who led a life well lived, began feeling insignificant and “not smart enough” to remember.
Mrs. Sarah was then asked to take a paint brush and drag it across the shaving creme, creating swirls and patterns of different colors. She wasn’t certain of herself, but kept “painting” at the encouragement of the others.
The next step in the process required Mrs. Sarah to take a piece of paper and lightly press it into the shaving creme. “Am I messing up? I hope I didn’t ruin it,” she said. When the paper was pressed to the bottom of the pan, the therapist gently pulled it back and scraped away the shaving creme with the edge of piece of cardboard. When the shaving creme was cleared away, the therapist revealed the finished product and asked the students to describe what they saw.
A dove. A flower. A butterfly. A party. These were the things the students saw in the abstract, and as they described them, tears filled her eyes. You see, there is something else you should know about Mrs. Sarah. Besides losing memories and mobility, Mrs. Sarah is losing her sight. She sees shapes, colors and outlines, but no detail. Yet, here she was crying because she had created something beautiful for others to see. That’s what art is after all, she said.
When the therapist asked her to name the piece, Mrs. Sarah said, “Happiness.” When the therapist asked her to describe how it made her feel, Mrs. Sarah said, “Like there is something there and you can start again.”
You can start again. How beautiful it was to hear those words from a woman who probably believed she would never get the chance to start again. She apologized for being emotional, but what she couldn’t see were the tears in everyone’s eyes. We all needed to hear that, and I’m sure we will need to be reminded of it again someday. At 95, Mrs. Sarah realized that she could start over, despite her age and her sickness. No matter what you are going through or what life throws your way, tomorrow is a new day, and you can always start again.