By: Emma Comery
About 15 years ago, Gloria Gooding was struggling to navigate her father-in-law’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis when a retired schoolteacher named Marge walked into her Senior Friends art class at North Bay Hospital in Aransas Pass. Despite living with both macular degeneration and dementia, Marge was a prolific painter, and always signed her work with the phrase from my heart to yours. Funny how the little details stick, like oil on canvas, with Gooding even today.
Working with Marge was Gooding’s first experience of being engaged with Alzheimer’s and dementia, and it not only helped her understand her father-in-law’s disease, but taught her about the value of art for those losing their memory, and for those who love them.
Fast forward seven years. Gooding was working in home-health marketing when Dr. Nestor Predario, who had heard of her program at North Bay, reached out to ask if she’d start a similar art program for Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in Corpus. “I wrote the program in three days,” she says. The final product she presented to Dr. Predario was “a program focused on patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s to give them identity and value through painting.” They named the program Memories On Canvas, and Gooding designed a palette and paint logo featuring colorful sponge blotches in honor of Marge.
That was nearly eight years ago. Today, Memories On Canvas is active in more than 25 nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the Coastal Bend. At each, Gooding has trained the local activities directors to facilitate the program with their residents, to whom Gooding always refers as artists. “I didn’t want anyone to think of the artist as first being a dementia or Alzheimer’s patient,” she explains. “An artist is a person who creates.”
Painting, she said, helps the artists express their thoughts and emotions while living with a disease that’s actively working against their ability to do just that. “You need to be patient, and converse and nurture them,” Gooding explains. In fact, the program calls for a caregiver or volunteer to work one-on-one with each artist in whatever capacity necessary, from companion to conversationalist to painting assistant.
“It’s so powerful to see someone’s art and go back through their journey in time and see what, for them, is unforgettable,” Gooding says. Perhaps it’s a story of the artist’s family, a past home, or their time in the Coast Guard … whatever it is, their unforgettable is all the more precious in the context of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
In 2013, Gooding approached the Art Center of Corpus Christi to host a month-long exhibit of Memories On Canvas, plus a reception for the artists and their families. The exhibit is now an annual tradition at the Art Center during November, and to date more than 500 pieces of original art have been exhibited in its galleries. After the exhibit, the art is given to the families. “You can’t put a dollar amount on this,” says Gooding. “It’s priceless.”
Priceless for the healing powers of art and creating, yes. But priceless also for art’s innate ability to tie together the past and present, memory and imagination, self-worth, value, identity – and its ability to keep you connected to your loved one, even if they don’t recognize you anymore. Gooding tells the story of one artist who said, “Painting gives me a purpose to wake up every morning so that, before I die, every member of my family has something from me.”
Today, Gooding and Dr. Predario are expanding Memories On Canvas into Portland and Rockport, and hope to engage professional artists to “adopt a senior” through the program. The growth and impact of the program they credit entirely to Marge, who Gooding wishes could see “what she has done for everyone who walks the path she walked with dementia.”
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