Art program helps woman with dementia cope with illness

June MaGee and her husband, Cleveland, talk about their involvement in art programs offered by the Alzheimer Society of Windsor and Essex County.

'If I get stressed out I just go over and take my book and just start colouring'

June MaGee (right) is living with dementia and uses the Alzheimer's Society education programs to help cope with her diagnosis. She is pictured here with her husband, Cleveland (middle) and education and support coordinator, Sarah Overton (left). (CBC Windsor)

Two years ago, June MaGee had to give up her driver's licence because of her dementia.   

"It's a shock because I was very independent, still am," said MaGee. "You feel like your life is draining. I'm perfectly fine, I'm healthy. It's just the brain is not."

Then June and her husband Cleveland decided to try out some of the programming at the Alzheimer Society of Windsor and Essex County. 

You feel like your life is draining. I'm perfectly fine, I'm healthy. It's just the brain is not.- June MaGee

One of the programs offered was at the Art Gallery of Windsor. Once a month, Alzheimer Society clients can take a tour of the gallery with a designated guide. They talk about different artworks and discuss how they feel about them.

"We thought it was a great idea, maybe it would be able to draw the clients out a little bit," said Cleveland. "As a caregiver, we get to enjoy it with them and it helps you to gel and maybe get the feelings of your spouse."

"I just love going," said June. "It's only an hour but it seems like longer."

Sarah Overton is the education and support coordinator at the Alzheimer society. She said it's not uncommon for people to withdraw a bit after a dementia diagnosis, but that programs like this one help to bring them back out.

"We find that being socially active and taking part in activities that are cognitively stimulating is really great for people living with dementia," Overton said. "These art programs are a great way to stay involved, stay active, but also with a group of people going through similar journeys in their lives."

June said she has been deeply influenced by her monthly trips to the art gallery. After her first visit to the gallery, she bought herself coloured pencils and some adult colouring books.

If I get stressed out I just go over and take my book and just start colouring.- June MaGee

"If I get stressed out I just go over and take my book and just start colouring,"
she said. "And you can see the difference from when I started to now. Now I stay in the lines."

Cleveland says part of the problem in his wife's case is that she knows what she's losing. "She knows what's happening to her."  And that can be frustrating and stressful. But the art program has given her some tools to help with those difficulties.

"With the colouring, she'll go and sit for a couple of hours and the stress leaves and she seems a lot more relaxed and a lot more forthcoming,"  said Cleveland.

Overton said the Alzheimer Society also offers an art program where couples come once a month to create art together.

Music and memory

Another successful program is called the iPods for Memories program, which uses music to stimulate memories.  

"We take an iPod and fill it with a customized playlist for the client," said Overton, adding that music is cognitively stimulating and improves mood.

"Think of how you feel when you hear a favourite song, or a song that's connected to a great memory — your wedding song, or that song that you listened to on a road trip across Canada. So the same is true for a person with dementia."

Honestly, this program works miracles.- Sarah Overton, education and support coordinator, Alzheimer Society

Overton said people with Alzheimer's and dementia who have withdrawn tend to open up when they hear a favourite song. "They start talking. Honestly, this program works miracles."

"Musical memory is profoundly linked to emotions," said Overton. "And while people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia might not be as capable of remembering details and facts, music can help draw out the feelings associated with a song." 

 Cleveland encourages anyone with Alzheimer's or dementia to get involved in programs like these. 

"Take that step forward," he said. "Push yourself a little if you have to because the reward is well worth it. I'm talking about the person with dementia, but the caregiver, as well."   

June said the programs have helped her husband, too. "He's more compassionate," she said. "And we're not afraid to talk about it. We'll talk about it with anyone who will listen."