Local senior living community Clemson Downs recently partnered with a Clemson University research team to hold an art show at the Central-Clemson Regional Branch Library to celebrate the work of several residents living with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The art showcased at the event is the product of the Clemson Downs Creative Studio that evolved in partnership between Clemson Downs and a research team led by Stephanie Pangborn, assistant professor in Clemson’s communication department. She hopes the art show will help shape a more humanizing understanding of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. According to Pangborn, the creative studio lets individuals rely on art to transcend physical and communicative challenges.
“The creative arts enable us to pursue relationships with residents in ways that celebrate capacities rather than dwell on limitations,” Pangborn said. “Individuals living with these diagnoses are people worthy of life-affirming acknowledgment and meaningful relationships, and communities have much to gain by remaining integrally connected to them.”
The creative studio is housed in Clemson Downs’ memory care facility and includes musical instruments, markers, paints, canvases, refurbished cameras and even iPads for residents with sensory issues. The program was an easy sell for Clemson Downs Executive Director Dr. John LeHeup. According to Ruthie Millar, marketing specialist at Clemson Downs, Pangborn’s initial meeting with LeHeup was less a discussion of whether or not to pursue the project and more a conversation aimed at a lasting partnership.
“There was no precedent for us in using art to work with residents,” Millar said. “It still amazes me to see art strip away the barriers of disease; the years between students and residents melt away and they just communicate.”
The studio is supported by the Arts Center of Clemson, which provides a volunteer, Sue Reneke, to assist students and help residents develop their artistic abilities. According to Tommye Hurst, executive director of the Arts Center of Clemson, the staff is proud to be a part of the studio and collaborate with both Clemson Downs and Clemson University as a community partner.
Millar said the families of residents are thrilled with the studio and the experiences it enables. In these spaces, the negative stigma of dementia or Alzheimer’s disappears and focus shifts to the person and possibility. For individuals like Edward Long, a resident in the early stages of dementia, the creative studio allowed his family to see him in a brand new light.
Marian Benton, Long’s daughter, always knew her father to be the “alpha male,” the CEO of a Fortune 500 company whose definition of play was usually golf associated with business deals. She jokes that he may have held a paint brush only once under threat of divorce to add some color to a bathroom wall.
Now Long is known as Pic—short for Picasso—at Clemson Downs’ creative studio. Benton said Pangborn approached Long with no preconceived notions of his interest in art or what he could or would do with art supplies. She simply encouraged him to see what would happen when paint hit canvas.
“Our dad the artist? The whole family was delightfully stunned,” Benton said. “He was as surprised as any of us. He’s proud of it. This diagnosis…it’s a difficult transition for patients and their families even when they plan for it. Stephanie and her students manage to bring something positive out of it.”
Pangborn initially established the studio with funds obtained through a research development grant from the Clemson University College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities. The project was further supported by the university’s Service Alliance and Creative Inquiry programs that enable faculty to pursue research and service-learning projects with students. In addition to building relationships with residents through artistic experiences, Pangborn and her students study the role of creative approaches to communication and holistic care in a health care context.
Since the team’s research began in November 2015, a highlight of the research team’s experience has been witnessing the residents become caregivers and encouragers for one another. Pangborn said their engagement in creative arts gives them an avenue to cultivate an environment they can continue to thrive in even amid the limitations that accompany their diagnosis.
“People say these diseases ‘steal the mind,’ and they affect the mind, of course,” Pangborn said, “but the person is still there to be acknowledged, cared for and loved. People come into this diagnosis from different places. They have unique experiences because they don’t travel one path at the same pace. Using a cookie cutter approach to care imposes constraints; creative arts inspire us to use whatever we have to work with in pursuit of constructing something beautiful.”
The project was tough for students to take on initially, but the rewards made that effort worth it. Sydney Scaggs, a 2016 Clemson alumna who was involved in the project, said the experience did bring her to tears at times, but ultimately it taught her that every person has something to contribute in this world and that we have much to learn from experiences that challenge us. She cherishes the time she spent with each resident.
Walker Calhoun, a senior communication major who is currently working on a capstone project at the studio, said it didn’t take long to see the creative studio’s positive effect on even the most isolated resident. She remembers a specific resident from the first day who sat alone with her head down showing almost no willingness to communicate. By the end of the session, the resident was engaged in an art project, talking to other residents, and her body language even changed.
“It became a time every week when I refueled, when I became re-energized,” Calhoun said. “I learned that when so much medical attention is needed, the interpersonal connection sometimes gets lost. If you provide that connection, you see the results quickly.”
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