Seattle programs reach “The Artist Within” those experiencing dementia

"Summer Flowers" painted by Jean McFee Raichle in an Elderwise ® creative outreach class.
“Summer Flowers” painted by Jean McFee Raichle in an Elderwise ® creative outreach class.

When Marilyn Raichle’s mother, Jean, was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 89, she began attending Elderwise® creative outreach classes. Though Jean was grieving the loss of her husband of 70 years, she found joy and creativity through free-flowing watercolor painting.

Jean passed away last year, but her artwork helped her daughter to see her mother in a new way.

“What was it about the paintings? It was the playfulness,” Marilyn Raichle remembers. “Turning squashes into dragons, flowers into clowns. The absolute symmetry. So mysterious. So inviting. So like mom. She was distilled to her essence.

The dominant narrative of aging and dementia often includes loss and isolation, but Elderwise shines the light on hope and connectivity through holistic programming that touches mind, body, and spirit. It has been providing elders living with memory loss care and art programs for nearly 20 years as a Seattle-based nonprofit.

Along with its community partners, Elderwise is working to redirect the spotlight on what people with memory loss have to give, starting with a winter series of events.

People living with dementia in Seattle are watercolor painting and farming in urban parks, drumming in music circles, eating in cafes, analyzing art at museums and walking through Woodland Park Zoo.

These types of engagement are a testament to how Seattle has helped de-stigmatize this disease by encouraging people with dementia out of isolation, and into opportunities to connect with each other, their surroundings and their creativity.

Having worked with those living with dementia as a facilitator with Elderwise, I have seen that, while it appears from the outset they have lost a lot, this is a group of people who have skills to gain and much wisdom to give. Memory loss does not mean creativity loss.

In the Elderwise watercolor classes I’ve been in, each person feels free enough to bring their own style to the table, with no requirement of having ever painted before. The medium lends itself to loss of control, going with the flow as the paints mix together on the paper.

A class project with Elderwise around the holidays last December. (Photo from Elderwise Facebook page)
A class project with Elderwise around the holidays last December. (Photo from Elderwise Facebook page)

Raichle’s heart and mind were opened by the paintings her mother created towards the end of her life.

“If we can let go of the person who used to be and embrace the valuable person who is with us now – if we can join them in their reality instead of trying to ‘bring them back’ to ours, we will all be immeasurably enriched,” she states on her Art of Alzheimer’s website.

Raichle is not alone.

Over the course of last year, she’s gathered around a dozen elder-serving community partners in Seattle, whose programs she describes as “catalysts for knowledge, empathy, and creativity.” The organizations — including Elderwise, Full Life Care, Horizon House, Frye Art Museum, Northwest Center for Creative Aging and Greenwood Senior Center — have helped build “The Art of Alzheimer’s” and its winter series from dream to reality.

The series launched Jan. 7 with an art exhibition coordinated by Raichle, “The Artist Within,” on display at the City Hall lobby and Anne Focke galleries through Feb. 26. Raichle dedicated the exhibit to her mother Jean, who inspired her to curate it.

“The Artist Within” features 50 paintings by 42 artists between 60 and 101 years old, and the artwork runs the gamut: self-portraits, black-and-white geometric collage, watercolors.

In addition to the exhibit, which brought out nearly 200 people on its opening night, “The Art of Alzheimer’s” theme rolls out into an entire City Hall-based event roster through February that involves discussion, song and theater opportunities. On March 2, a film screening of documentary, “Alive Inside,” will show viewers how music plays a profound role in overcoming memory loss.

The crowd at the City Hall show opening of "The Artist Within" on Jan. 7. (Photo by Adina Menashe)
The crowd at the City Hall show opening of “The Artist Within” on Jan. 7. (Photo by Adina Menashe)

Elder-serving organizations across the city have formed a “Momentia” movement in Seattle, one dedicated to building a stronger community for the well-being of those living with dementia, a growing yet marginalized population.

Rising to the challenges of an aging population, Seattle’s dementia advocacy and services are slowly catching up with countries like the United Kingdom, Australia, France, and South Korea, where they have dedicated language and government infrastructure for dementia care and engagement.

But if the Seattle Momentia movement keeps up with diverse engagement opportunities for our elders through Seattle Parks and Recreation, Frye Art Museum, Elderwise, Rainier Beach Urban Farm & Wetlands, Taproot Theatre Company, the Alzheimer’s Association and more, we can challenge the status quo in the U.S. We can change the quality of life and care for those living with memory loss — as well as the perceptions of what they should look like.

As for now, Raichle has bigger plans for “The Artist Within.”

After City Hall, the exhibit will move to Harborview Medical Center, then show at Seattle’s Northwest Folklife Festival in May. The next stop for the traveling exhibit will be July’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in Toronto.

“We are just beginning,” says Raichle, a former director of the Seattle International Children’s Festival.

For 2017, she is already planning to present a photography exhibit focusing on a cross-cultural exploration of dementia care in Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.

Artwork from “The Artist Within” exhibit will be on display at the City Hall lobby through Feb. 26. A series of related events involving discussion, song and theater, will take place at City Hall throughout February. See the full listing of “The Art of Alzheimer’s” February events. 

On March 2 at 7 p.m., “The Art of Alzheimer’s” screening of the documentary film “Alive Inside,” explores music’s profound role in overcoming memory loss . More details at www.elderwise.org

To learn more about dementia-friendly opportunities in the Seattle area, visit www.momentiaseattle.org

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