Ralph took his first art class in twenty years this afternoon.
He agreed to go only because our physician’s assistant Stephanie gave him a “written prescription” to take art lessons during our last visit to the Memory Center at Emory.
Ralph has always been a natural draftsman, and in his thirties he took courses from a couple of relatively renowned artist/teachers who gave him real encouragement. Then life got in the way and he didn’t stick to the art. He always said he’d take up the painting again once he retired. But that was before he was diagnosed with (not so) Mild Cognitive Impairment and he has not touched a paintbrush since.
So when he told Stephanie that he had his paints all set up in his office in the barn and was going to paint soon once he had things organized, I probably rolled my eyes. He does go to his office to “straighten and organize” most days, but really he sits and smokes and talks to the dog. I am glad he has somewhere to go and be comfortable. I certainly don’t care that the office will never be organized, but I do fear and sense the mental atrophy setting in.
Like everyone involved with dementia and cognitive issues, I am aware of the benefits of art therapy. [For those interested there is a documentary, “I Remember Better When I Paint” worth checking out as well as numerous articles and essays to be read on-line.] But Stephanie and I knew better than to push that angle with Ralph, who shies away from that word “therapy”.
Instead Stephanie blamed human nature, explaining in the nicest way possible that if Ralph didn’t take an actual class he would never start to paint on his own. She told him that he needed the class to jumpstart and structure his time. (She also prescribed a weekly night out for dinner or a movie, but following that direction has proven harder for reasons I’ll explore another time.) What he would hear as nagging from my mouth became sound advice when it came to Ralph from an authority figure who also happens to be attractive and charming.
Fortunately, as Stephanie agreed, Ralph doesn’t need to be in a special class for the cognitively impaired. He just needs a class period: A time and place on his schedule; plus an environment with other students good enough that he takes the class seriously but not so good that they intimidate him. Not an easy situation to find in a small town, but two friends separately recommended the same art teacher who has been working with a group of adult students for several years. We talked. I assured her that Ralph was not a beginner, but I also felt obligated to acknowledge Ralph’s M.C.I. just in case something came up. I assured her that no one in the class would be able to tell he had a memory problem. I could hear her hesitation, but she agreed to let him in.
Since I told him that I’d signed him up he has asked with anxious frequency what day the class was, where it was, how long it was, what he had to take to the class, who would be at the class and how good were they at painting.
He has not been asking with enthusiasm. His has been a litany of fears. On the drive to the class this afternoon—“Where is it again,” a moment of silence, “Where is it again?”—Ralph was such a bundle of nerves that I almost gave in and said he didn’t have to go. The gray, drizzly cold didn’t help; bad weather is always an excuse for Ralph these days.
But we made it to the parking lot and he did get out of the car with his supplies.
I sat with my motor running as he walked in, pretending to take a call on the cell phone. By then I was a bundle of nerves myself, the same nerves I remember suffering when each of my kids faced the first day of school. I watched through the window as he trooped into the classroom and walked up to the teacher to introduce himself.
“So how was it?” I asked when he came out two hours later.
I could tell he was in a good mood, but I was not expecting what a good mood.
“Once I got started I was in the zone,” he said and showed me the painting he’s begun. He can’t wait to go back…
How happy-making to offer a success story for a change.