What would it be like to lose the ability to make your own choices? What if the control of your everyday life was no longer yours? From the simplest things, like when to get up in the morning and what to wear and how your day would be spent, to the more complex—giving up your home, your car keys and your independence—how would it be if you had no input into any of that?
Unfortunately, that is all too often the case for individuals who have dementia. Dementia is not one disease, rather it is a collection of diseases that are characterized by a decline in memory and thinking skills, a decline that limits the ability to function in everyday life. Dementia is one of the leading causes of death in the United States and it is the only one that cannot be prevented.
The loss of control and choice that dementia brings with it are not things that anyone wants to see happen to themselves or their loved ones. Yet it is one of the outcomes of this progressive condition as skills deteriorate and abilities decline.
There is certainly research underway and the hope for new approaches and solutions. Today, the best that those of us who work with older adults can do is to make every effort to preserve abilities and to help these individuals achieve an optimal quality of life. We do this in many ways—by educating ourselves and others about dementia, by enhancing communication skills, by understanding that there are stages and phases that require us, as caregivers and care partners, to behave differently. Underlying all of that is a commitment to always remembering that these are individuals who have had lives of meaning and value, that disease may be limiting their outward abilities but that these are still adults, who must be treated in that way.
One of the most powerful tools we’ve found to help reinforce this message is a remarkable program called Opening Minds through Art (OMA). Developed by Elizabeth Lokon, PhD at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University, OMA uses creative expression to help “unlock the door” for the individual with dementia.
The premise of OMA is that individuals with dementia, including advanced dementia, can and will still make choices if offered the opportunity. The projects that are worked on in the weekly OMA sessions use real art for their inspiration and are also carefully designed to be “failure free.” In some settings, we see art projects done with older adults that appear to be—and are—juvenile in nature. OMA projects are adult and thoughtfully created to provide an outlet, an opportunity for control with their project that they may not have in other areas of their life.
OMA is built on volunteer involvement, one on one with each participant. Volunteers are very careful not to do the project but rather to facilitate and gently partner. The volunteers are consistent for each session of the 12 week semester and develop meaningful relationships with the older adults, expanding their view of what dementia is and what individuals are still capable of achieving.
Over the course of time, OMA’s impact has been carefully monitored and measured through many means—observation by researchers, videotaping participant expressions before, during and after the program and having them analyzed—and much more. What’s clear in all of this is that meaningful, successful creative expression helps the individual with dementia have something that is still completely their own and in their control. And it reminds all of us that they are still “in there” and that we must value them as individuals, adults and people whose life has meaning.