Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:
July 6, 2010 — Art and conversation that engage people with dementia are the focus of a new art exhibit designed by Lauren Catlett, a May graduate of the University of Virginia's studio art program who spent more than six months working with residents at various stages of dementia living at four area retirement communities.
"Shared Doings and Sayings," an exhibition of their artwork accompanied by quotes from the conversations, opens Friday in the Dean's Gallery at U.Va.'s School of Architecture. The exhibit of 30 works is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Oct. 13.
Catlett volunteered at memory care facilities during her high school years in Richmond, and again at the University through the Adopt-a-Grandparent program at Madison House. She wanted to explore a more engaged and sharing relationship with the residents than weekly volunteer visits in an established art class would provide.
She developed a program that would engage residents through multi-sensory prompts, such as poems, photographs, fruit and flowers, which could provide both conversation and inspiration for art. The project was supported by an arts grant from the Center for Undergraduate Excellence.
Catlett researched the psychology of dementia, the care of dementia patients and the role of the arts in aging. She built the program on the idea that the "care practice of people with dementia should revolve around treating them as people and not the sum of their losses," she said.
Catlett met weekly with 50 residents from the four communities: The Colonnades, Morningside Assisted Living, Our Lady of Peace Alzheimer's Center and Rosewood Village. Often, staff, family members and other residents would join the sessions.
For inspiration, Catlett turned to her experience working with Sanda Iliescu, associate professor of architecture and art and curator of the dean's gallery. Iliescu's work often embraces ethical and cultural issues in a public arena.
"I credit Sanda with her joining art-making with public awareness," Catlett said. "That seemed to fit with what I wanted to do and how I wanted to engage more."
The conversation component of the project was as valuable as making the art, Catlett said. She recorded the exchanges in her journal and sometimes on video.
Catlett said she found the conversation with one resident, an accomplished artist, especially inspirational and enlightening.
"She said, 'You have to learn in all directions.' From then on, that was the basis for how I approached the project," Catlett said. "That quote applies to a lot of the artwork that the residents made and also for me personally – encouraging me to look in different areas for inspiration or for how I could better serve someone's needs. It doesn't have to be necessarily through art. It could be some other avenue."
Catlett is also compiling a limited edition, self-published book about the project that includes over 100 drawings and accompanying text from the conversations. She conceived the publication as an artist's book, a late 20th-century art form.
"You couldn't have the art work without the conversations that give the artwork context," Catlett said. "They inform each other. I see the book as a way of preserving the project and conversations and a way of continuing the dialogues."
A copy of the book will be given to each of the memory care facilities as a "celebration of the residents' artwork and to preserve the memory of the residents and the time when the conversations took place," Catlett said.
For the University, the project "might be a way of opening and extending conversations about the care of the elderly and about how different age groups can contribute to our community."
"Just because the elderly may have certain disabilities, it doesn't mean they can't continue to contribute meaningfully to their communities," she said. "Even though communication may be difficult for persons with dementia, there are still other ways of reaching them and them reaching us."