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Art Therapy and Dementia (with transcript)

Lola Fraknoi is the creator of an Art Kit for people with memory loss and a professor of art in the Older Adult Program at the City College of San Francisco, and at the Older Adult Lifelong Learning program of San Francisco State University. With more than 25 years of experience in the aging field, Lola is trained as a professional artist and has always found ways to bring art, music, and creativity of all kinds into the programs she has led.www.arttimeprograms.com


Frank Samson: We’re excited about today’s guest. Her name is Lola Fraknoi. She is the creator of an art kit for people with memory loss, a professor of art in the Older Adult Program at the City College of San Francisco, and at the Older Adult Lifelong Learning Program of San Francisco State University. This program is available to people all over the country.


Lola has more than 25 years of experience in the aging field, and is trained as a professional artist. She has always found ways to bring art, music, and creativity of all kinds into the programs she has led. I wanted to say thank you for joining us Lola, and welcome to The Aging Boomers.


Lola Fraknoi: Thank you.


Frank: It’s absolutely our pleasure. I wanted to understand more about the art kit, and the inspiration behind inventing it. Can you give us an overview of what the art kit is intended to do?


Lola: Yes, my inspiration was my own mother. My mom had Alzheimer’s. As her language started to disappear, as an artist I felt that I could do something different with her as a way to communicate. As you know, language is one of the first things that goes, so I came up with things around the house. They inspired me to go further, so I designed this art kit that has different activities.


It has five different activities that can trigger responses for people that have memory loss, especially people with Alzheimer’s, dementia, and it’s been used with other populations with success. That’s how I got started.


Frank: You have been marketing to assisted living locations, nursing homes, et cetera. You’re also working directly with family caregivers who might be taking care of a loved one at home. Is that correct?


Lola: Yes. That really was my inspiration: what do you do with a loved one who is awake at night, and you can barely open your eyes during the day? This is something that requires no set-up, no help, and no art experience from the caregiver or staff at a nursing home or assisted living facility. It gives the caregiver a little break, where they can pay their bills, read a book, or just go back to sleep for a little bit. It’s also a gift for the caregivers and the staff who work with this population that can be very challenging at times.


Frank: It’s almost like short-term respite?


Lola: Yes, that’s a really good way of putting it!


Frank: So, let’s think of someone who might be a caregiver at home, they get this art kit from you and they start opening it up. Could you explain when they open it, what are they going to see? When someone thinks of art, they might think painting or sculpting, what is really included in the package?


Lola: Yes, your listeners will be able to see a video that I produced that shows me working with the art kit. It is a simple binder, because I don’t have $10,000 for packaging. It is just me doing this and putting it together.


It’s called a Less Art Kit. When you open it there is welcome page and a “how to get started” page. A lot of caregivers want to sit next to a loved one or someone with memory loss and do it with them or for them. This is actually designed for them to be alone with their creativity. The caregiver may check in, and of course, be friendly and encouraging. You’d be amazed if you just leave the artist with these activities, what they can come up with! Staff and caregivers alike have been amazed by the results.


It’s divided into different categories. The first one is prompt drawings. Imagine a house in the middle of a field, and the field is open. Imagine a very simple outline of half a dress, or half a light bulb. What is great about the art kit is as the pages go on, it will get more difficult as the person wants more difficulty, to satisfy different levels of the disease. Half a kimono can have dots, and the other half can be completely empty. Other examples would be half a shirt, or half a Navajo rug. Because I saw so many people doing figurative things, I put half a face, just out of curiosity to see what they would come up with.


Research is proving, unfortunately, that there is no cure right now. It has been proven that the part of the brain where creativity resides remains intact until the very end. This is such valuable information because some people undervalue art, “my husband or my wife is not a child.” But, we’re talking about creativity, meaningful ways to spend time, and of course quality of living.  It’s backed now by research, by UCSF and other parts around the world that creativity, music, dance, and visual arts are real ways of communicating, being productive, and feeling a sense of accomplishment.


The second section is clay projects. There’s different ways of doing these projects, but it’s very simple forms where outlines are asked to be made with little snakes of clay, and then painting them. Another thing about the binder that is really important, is that it includes all the materials. No one has to go around with a list of supplies to go all over town to get them. It’s all included.


The next activity is collage, which allows people to have a way to create visual images, spacial relationships, and encourages decision making. Even cutting it and gluing it could be an accomplishment. It includes images, and it asks the caregiver to find images and create an image library. They can use any Sunday catalog, it’s full of images.


The last one is called visual stories, which was an activity that I designed out of a request of a family for a beginner sufferer of Alzheimer’s. There’s images and then there’s blank spaces. The blank spaces ask the participant to either write, paint, or draw. It was one of those activities that I wanted to leave very open for the participant to fill in. Again, the results have been wonderful where their stories are woven, or just patterns recognized.


Those are the activities, and my wish is that there will be more art kits, and more content that grows out of my experience working with that population.


Frank: I think it’s wonderful what you’re doing. I’m sure you must have some amazing stories. I remember being with a family, after we helped find a residential care home for the mother to live. They put on music, and the mother started to sing beautifully. The daughter started to cry and I said, “It’s wonderful, why are you crying?” She said “I’ve never heard my mom sing like that.” Sometimes it brings out things that other family members aren’t even aware that they had this creativity.
Lola: And more importantly Frank, we know now why that is happening. That part of the brain remains sane, remains lucid, and remains open for creativity. People know about plaques and the lesions, but there’s that little part where we can be creative until the very last stage.


Frank: Right, I think it’s fantastic. Tell us how things are going so far. I know you haven’t been doing it that long, that’s how we connected. I saw a press release about you doing it. How’s the reception at the assisted living locations, and with individual families?


Lola: I need more reception!


Frank: Okay, great. That’s what we’re going to try to help you do.


Lola: I’m giving workshops now, and that seems to really help, because people are intimidated about art. A director of an assisted living facility might buy this, but ask “what am I going to do with it?” So, it really helps to have a workshop, or someone that explains how to do it and breaks it down for them. You know how hard caregivers and staff work with this population, and now we’re expecting them to be artists too, or art teachers?


I think the workshops are really helping. I’m available to go anywhere that I’m needed. I’m teaching at City College of San Francisco for populations that have dementia. There’s some percentage of dementia in every classroom, so I get a chance to test it. City College and every facility that I go in is really happy to see that it’s not just pages of a coloring book, or folding socks, or whatever else they were doing. They’re amazed that other things can be done.


It’s something new, and it’s art, and it’s for the elderly, and it’s for Alzheimer’s which is a scary thing to deal with. But I believe in it, I want to try to continue to offer it. If workshops are needed, I’m there.

Frank: Great, I know you mentioned a website. What is the website people could go to learn more about it, and you said you have a video as well?


Lola: Yes, I hope you can link the video where you put the website as well.


Frankn: Absolutely.


Lola: My website is called arttimeprograms.com. The art kit is available for sale at my website, and it’s a corporation of one.


Frank: That’s wonderful. We’re glad to get the word out, because it’s a wonderful idea that I’m sure has helped many families thus far, and we want to help more.


Once it gets all set up, and the particular senior starts working with it, what have you found as far as length of time it keeps them engaged? As we all know, those with various forms of dementia, keeping their attention is difficult. I’m sure it varies on the individual, but what has been your experience of what you’ve seen that, it’s going to keep somebody engaged in terms of minutes?


Lola: In my test, the room became absolutely quiet. Of course, I had to ask for radios to be turned on, and turned off. For the table where the art kit was not to be completely cluttered, not to have all the supplies out. Be very spare in how you introduce the materials and the activity.


It’s on average an hour and a half to an hour and forty-five minutes that they will not ask to go to the bathroom or for food. They are just completely focused on the activity. There’s variables, someone could have had a bad morning, so try it again at night. We all have our good days, and our bad days, and good mornings, and bad afternoons, so try it again. Because there’s five different kinds of activities, one type of activity will be ideal.


What I’ve seen in one of the institutions that I work with through City College was that they have now gone and grew into different things on their own. They’ve developed things from my inspiration.  Which really makes me so happy. They are changing things and developing activities out of the inspiration that the art kit gave them, to fit their population.


Maybe someone is really interested in trucks, so all the prompt drawings can be about trucks, or airplanes, or flowers. It gives inspiration on getting started, without feeling like you need to take an art class or be an art teacher to do it.


Frank: Wow, my question was how many minutes? An hour to an hour and a half, that’s tremendous, that’s great!


Lola: Yes, I’ll tell you a funny story. I was working with a group of women and they were all Chinese. I had given them clay and they finished the outline, and what I asked them to do. Then, all of a sudden, one of the women starts making things. I see her making clay birds. After 20 minutes, everyone is making little birds, and wants more clay.


It’s like a warm up. What would happen if you do a couple of exercises, and you leave the clay out, or you leave the paint or some colors? What happens with the brain when it’s been warmed up and wants to keep going?


Frank: I think there’s such a market for this. As you are, I’m out there every day and we have staff all over the country now meeting with families. Certainly we’re going to get the word out to all of our people about this, because I think it’s tremendous. I think it’s a wonderful idea, and I’m sure you’re going to have great success. Like any new thing, it takes time.


Lola: Yes, I know.


Frank: For family caregivers who are now confronted with a situation, with a parent whose been diagnosed with some form of dementia like Alzheimer’s? Certainly there’s a lot of other types, but where they’re confronted with this situation now and having to deal with it. Any words of wisdom to that individual who’s now at the early stage with it?


Lola: First of all, a lot of love and compassion goes out to all of those people, because it’s such a hard job to see your loved one become this other person. It’s so difficult. My advice, as an artist, is just to lower your expectations, and just live day by day, and not expect that person is going to be back. Unfortunately, that’s a stage of recognition.


Frank: That’s great advice. I also want to make sure that everybody has your website address. You have an art website address and you have the art kit website. How can people reach you?


Lola: My art website helps me deal with feelings for my own self. I’ve seen stories that have told me that the caregivers have started making art because they were inspired, just for their own sanity and for their own healing. My website is lolafraknoi.com. I’m a working artist. And, arttimeprograms.com, where you will see a movie of the art kit at work.


Any advice for me as an entrepreneurial person, or any opportunities, please let me know. I’m new at this business part of my brain, so any help I can get would be appreciated.


Frank: Great. Lola thank you so much for joining us on The Aging Boomers. I wish you the best, and we’ll do everything we can to help you as well get the word out. Thank you for all you do, and for joining us on The Aging Boomers.


Lola: Thank you Frank, and thank you for all you do.


Frank: You’re very welcome, and I want to thank everybody out there for joining us on The Aging Boomers. Please be safe out there, and we’ll talk to you all soo
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