If the pearl snap flannel shirt and blue jeans didn’t give it away, Maynard Heese’s worn hands sure did. He was a farmer.
For 46 years, he worked his land just south of Dodge. Now 96, when he’s not riding the stationary bike inside Lincoln's Northview Independence House, he often can be found in the garden.
“He’s the little engine that could,” said Steve Petersen, whose mother-in-law, Kathleen Speicher, 91, also lives at the home for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia and related memory loss diagnoses. Last Monday, they shared a table in the Northview activity room with 15 other residents. Their hands were dirty, but not from garden soil.
Every Monday this April, residents at the Lincoln assisted-living facility have gathered to take a ceramics class led by Allie Feezell, a resident artist with the Lux Center for the Arts.
Many of the people living at Northview grew up in the Depression era, Petersen said. They worked their entire lives, he said, and didn't have the same relationship with art as younger generations did.
"They're not used to having time to sit and play," he said.
But the benefits of art therapy for those with dementia are significant, and that's why Northview activity director Karen Harmon asked that the Lux Center consider their facility when she learned the nonprofit had received a $5,000 grant from the Lincoln Community Foundation to bring artists and art supplies to underserved populations.
“Research has shown when a person has Alzheimer’s or dementia issues, they can find it difficult to find the words to verbalize a memory," Harmon said. "Art is an important form of expression for anyone, but it is especially important when words are often lost.”
Jo Ann Emerson, executive director of the Lux Center, said she's a bit of a research junkie herself, and she has looked into the benefits of creating art for those with dementia. She found several studies that reinforced Northview's inclusion in the art program along with the cancer survivors' group at Saint Elizabeth Regional Medical Center, women in the residential treatment program at St. Monica’s and low-income public school students.
Dementia can negatively impact a person’s short-term memory and linguistic capabilities, but an art project can provide a person with dementia, as well as a caregiver, an opportunity for self-expression, according to the Alzheimer’s Association (alz.org).
“People with memory disorders are able to focus their attention,” Emerson said. “Sometimes it will even spark a memory from their life at some point.”
In February, as part of the same grant, Northview residents worked with acrylic paints and oil pastels with artist Kate Marx.
During one class, she had the residents use acrylics to each paint the same rural landscape on canvas paper, and they currently hang side by side in the activity room. Another time, she brought in some fruit and flowers for a still-life session but told her class that they were free to paint whatever they wanted.
Some painted the flowers. Some painted the fruit. One painted an image of the lake on his family land with a boat atop the calm water. When Marx asked who the two people in the boat were, the artist said they were he and his son.
When Marx was asked to participate in the Lux program, she said she thought about the times she spent with her late grandmother, Tena Kissenger. She had Alzheimer's, Marx said, and she remembered spending afternoons with the retired elementary school English teacher sketching on a chalkboard.
“It was such a big part of me growing up,” Marx said. “I felt happy to be able to give back.”
Northview offers a weekly art activity whether the Lux Center artists are leading it or not, but Harmon said the visiting artists brought out talent in the residents she had never seen before.
For Marx, the finished product wasn't as important as the process of creating it.
“I thought the social aspect of it was super fun,” Marx said. “It was bringing out the humor and the stories, even the residents who couldn’t speak and communicate well. They were communicating through their work.
“I think my favorite part is everybody had a story to tell. It seemed that I’d find out more and more about these people. They were teachers; they were farmers.”
On April 21, as Feezell passed out fired ceramic bowls, cups and plates from a previous session, she also explained to the residents that they had been the ones who made them.
“Looks like you got a couple hamburgers there,” Heese told another resident, Dolores McKenzie, as she took a look at her artwork.
“I’ll give it to you if you want to eat it,” she replied, and they both laughed.
Feezell then handed out clay to each of the residents. Before she gave them instructions on what to make, one woman began to form a bowl with hers.
“It was just muscle memory,” Feezell said. “She goes, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’”
This coming Monday, at the final class before the grant runs out, Feezell said, she’ll give the residents free rein to create what they want and see if it triggers a memory.
For some, it's clear the classes already have.
“In 1950, I built a complete barn, 18 by 36,” Heese said last Monday as he leveled the edges of his clay bowl.
Took about 10 days, he said. A lightning strike set the old one ablaze. Two or three calves were lost in that fire. The details about his barn kept coming as he began to paint it a familiar, burgundy red.