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'The Art of Alzheimer's Disease': New exhibit highlights therapy group, IUK service learning

Kokomo Tribune - 1/18/2019

Jan. 17--There are four circles on the wall. Within the first circle, there is an explosion of vibrant colors with fluid, distinguished squiggles. The second circle is lighter, with muted tones and a faint design. The third circle is almost completely empty, aside from four more circles in the right quadrant. And in the fourth, there are just three small lines engulfed by white.

In those four circles displayed at the Indiana University Kokomo Art Gallery, you can visualize the various stages of Alzheimer's disease.

The artwork -- now displayed at the gallery in an exhibit called "The Art of Alzheimer's Disease" -- was created by residents at Waterford Place during a 6-week art therapy group led by IUK professor Brooke Komar this summer.

Each week, Komar and four of her students would visit the assisted living facility in Kokomo and assist Alzheimer's and dementia patients with creating their very own works of art using various mediums, including watercolors, collages and drip-pour paintings.

The art therapy group is part of a service-learning course created by Komar. Last spring, she and her students held a 16-week art therapy group at the Logansport Juvenile Correctional Facility.

"Part of my job as an educator is to provide opportunities for my students to learn, and the best way to learn, I think, is hands-on and doing," Komar said. "I wanted to design service-learning courses that would provide vulnerable populations in the community with a valuable clinical service and also provide my students with an opportunity of learning through doing."

Art therapy not only helps clients become comfortable with the process of creating, but also provides rich clinical data for psychologists, Komar said.

"One of the benefits of exhibiting clients' artwork is that it gives them a sense of identity and it gives them a sense of esteem," she continued.

Waterford residents had several warm-up activities just to get familiar with the materials they were using. The circles, described earlier, were a simple activity that actually depicted the progression of the degeneration associated with Alzheimer's disease.

An estimated 5.7 million Americans live with Alzheimer's disease, an irreversible degeneration of the brain causing disruptions in memory, language and eventually physical abilities.

According to the Alzheimer's Association, beginning stages are often mistaken for natural "aging," like forgetting newly-learned information. The moderate stage of the disease includes symptoms such as forgetting events and one's own personal history, changes in personality and confusion about where they are or what day it is. By the final stage of Alzheimer's, individuals may lose their ability to walk, sit, stand and speak.

"As the disease progresses, it begins to degenerate multiple areas of the brain," Komar said. "As that happens, individuals become more and more dependent on their caregivers. They may forget to bathe or feed themselves. When you look at their artwork, you can begin to see that deterioration."

In addition to warm-up activities, every week, about six to 12 individuals worked on specific projects tailored to their abilities.

"When we work with individuals that have physical limitations, we do what we can to make sure they are still included in the activity," Komar said. "I've had residents that have painted with their toes or put a paintbrush in their mouth -- it's my job to assess what their abilities are and then modify the activity for them."

During one project, residents were tasked with creating a collage with images that they liked or were meaningful to them. One resident who was wheelchair-bound and couldn't speak got to pick out the images he liked by Komar holding up one photo after another until he would smile. He chose a dog, an old truck and the number 62.

"It is a collaboration because those are the images he chose. He wasn't able to tell me his story, but he smiled when an image resonated with him," she said. "It's a treatment goal to help them reminisce and share their life stories with the interns that are working with them."

The IUK students in the service learning class also had weekly readings that related to the art therapy group and kept journals of their experiences that included artwork of their own. At the end of the summer semester, they wrote 10- to 15-page final papers.

"The nice thing about service-learning courses is for a student, it really does illuminate the connection between theory and practice," Komar said.

On Wednesday, the gallery hosted an opening reception for the Waterford Place residents and the students that helped guide the art therapy group. After the exhibit is over, the artists can choose to donate their artwork for an Alzheimer's disease fundraiser, or keep it to give to their families.

Komar hopes the exhibit can help educate the public about what art therapy is and how it can be beneficial for a variety of populations, in addition to bringing attention to Alzheimer's disease.

"My biggest hope is that people walk away with knowing that even with dementia or Alzheimer's, people are still human and they are still capable and they can still connect," she said. "They still have value and something to offer."

"The Art of Alzheimer's Disease" will be on display through Jan. 25 at the IUK Art Gallery inside the Kelley Student Center. For more information, visit www.iuk.edu/artgallery.

Haley Cawthon can be reached at haley.church@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @HaleyCawthon.

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(c)2019 the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.)

Visit the Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Ind.) at www.kokomotribune.com

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