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ARTMatters is helping stimulate the brains of Alzheimer's patients and ease their isolation

Virginian-Pilot - 12/28/2017

Dec. 28--Though long dead, artists Louis Tiffany and Henri Matisse are offering a glimmer of light and a connection to the world for people like Roger Bolen.

Bolen, 61, has Alzheimer's, and on a recent day at the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, he was one of about a dozen with dementia participating in a project aimed at stimulating minds and easing isolation.

Once a month, people in the early stages of dementia and their caregivers view famous artwork at the Chrysler and hear lectures from docents specially trained to relay information in a way that engages fading minds. They focus on certain aspects of paintings, like keying in on periods of time that reach long-ago memories rather than the minutiae of brush strokes and art history.

Already the "ARTMatters" project is serving as a template for museums in other communities. And the museum, in conjunction with the Alzheimer's Association Southeastern Virginia Chapter, is also taking art on the road in special vans to engage people with dementia in more rural areas, such as the Eastern Shore, Franklin and Suffolk.

Bolen's most recent outing at the Norfolk museum had him glass-blowing a delicate holiday ornament. He listened to studio instructor Kristi Totoritis as his wife, Ann, helped him take a steel rod with a glob of molten glass and roll it in "frit," pieces of glass that will give the ornament its color.

While he has an occasional look of confusion, Bolen mostly smiled as Ann stood at his side, guiding her husband's hands on the steel rod to cast it into the orange-red heat of a glass-blowing oven.

Totoritis then guided the rod back to a steel table to cool and mold: "OK, go ahead and blow now," she said as Roger blew lightly into a mouthpiece connected to the rod.

"Nice, slow, steady breaths and when it cools down you'll need to blow harder. OK, harder now..."

"Like you're blowing up a balloon," Ann said.

ARTMatters is not just focused on people with dementia, but also their caregivers; both populations are growing exponentially. A USLA study released in December estimates that about 15 million Americans will have either Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment by 2060, up from approximately 6 million this year.

And an Alzheimer's Association survey shows that two out of three caregivers feel isolated or alone in their situations, with 84 percent needing more support. As more people are living at home for the duration of the disease, rather than in long-term care facilities, they need more help than family members and friends can provide so community groups are stepping in.

Art is known as not only a brain stimulator but a soothing force. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, for instance, created a program specifically geared for people with Alzheimer's in 2006.

The Chrysler Museum teamed up with the local Alzheimer's Association chapter last year for a pilot program that eventually turned into the launch this fall of the 10-month "ARTMatters" program through a $10,000 grant from the Altria Foundation.

For the dozen or so families that come regularly, it's a godsend, and not just because of the art lessons.

"With something like Alzheimer's, we're both affected. We're sharing a journey with these people and yet we still can laugh and learn," said Ann Bolen, 58, who lives with her husband in Norfolk. "It gets us out of the house. And I'm very grateful for that."

Another student, Robert Boggs, 59, is at a different steel table across the room making his own ornament with his wife, Deborah. Robert, who lives in Newport News, was diagnosed in January. And while they were both devastated at the losses that were sure to come, the diagnosis also brought this revelation: Boggs learned he enjoys art.

He took care of telling friends and family about his disease, and also signed him and his wife up for the Chrysler classes. He and his wife also began going to a Newport News restaurant that has painting sessions.

"I've never painted before so it's been very interesting," he said.

"His paintings are more abstract," said Deborah, who as a retired kindergarten teacher knows all about art. "It makes him very calm."

That's especially important with a disease in which mood swings are common.

Both families have experienced the grief of what's called "early onset" Alzheimer's, dementia that strikes before the age of 65.

In Roger's case, the symptoms began in 2014. Ann noticed during a trip to Costa Rica that he was often confused, something unusual in a man who had traveled all over the world in his job as an information risk officer for a bank.

When they returned he began having problems logging into computers and accounts, and also had difficulty using his cell phone. During a business trip to Texas, he couldn't figure out how to get to the job site, something he'd easily done in the past. Ann was able to talk him through getting there over the phone.

It took a while to get a diagnosis, with his symptoms first being chalked up to stress by two doctors. But in March of 2015, a neurologist diagnosed him with Alzheimer's. He took medical leave from his job and then was able to qualify for disability. Caregiving also could force Ann into early retirement from her finance and loan job.

They joined an Alzheimer's Association "Peers and Partners" group soon after, which led them to the ARTMatters class.

If Ann's not able to attend the Chrysler classes, she finds someone to take him because he hates to miss it. The outings give him something to talk about with friends and family: "He may not remember all the details, but it is a story he can share and you can tell he really loves each meeting."

Boggs' symptoms began a couple of years ago with forgetfulness that would turn to irritation. He also was having problems with balance. He was a retired Navy chef and had fallen in his mid-30s on a ship that caused him to pass out.

They now question whether that could have been a contributing factor to his disease as traumatic head injuries have been linked to higher risk of dementia. In late 2016, a neurologist recommended a spinal tap, which led to the diagnosis in January.

"Robert was very open with everybody," Deborah said. "I didn't tell anyone. He did that."

After the glass-blowing project at the Chrysler, the group took a tour of the museum's famous glass exhibit to learn more about how glass is made.

Then, they had lunch together in the foyer. Boggs made cakes and cookies to share. Jonathan Markam, manager of curriculum at the museum, has been instrumental in organizing the classes, and said it fits well with the museum's mission of bringing art to people who might otherwise not experience it.

"Art transcends culture and language," he said. "Just by standing in front of a piece of art you become part of the artistic process."

Katie McDonough, director of programs and public policy for the Alzheimer's Association local chapter, said other classes they've offered focus on how to cope and what financial and legal steps to take, but the art classes are different:

"It gives them something else to talk about besides the disease. So often they feel defined by the disease and all the negative consequences. This creates a way for the opposite to happen. Because of the diagnosis, they have the opportunity to dabble in the arts."

That's been especially true for the Boggs.

"It's opened all these doors for us," Deborah said. "It's something we can go back and talk to our family and friends about."

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(c)2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)

Visit The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.) at pilotonline.com

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