One of the hallways of St. Mary’s Woods in Richmond, VA, has become an art gallery. It displays 28 works of art created by a small group of the retirement community’s residents.

But the wide variety of colors, forms and mediums along this light-filled hallway isn’t the result of just any resident art project. These works of art represent a seven-week, intergenerational program called Opening Minds through Art (OMA) which uses art, along with creative collaboration across generations (students are paired with seniors), to promote social engagement, creative expression and a sense of autonomy for those living with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

When someone has Alzheimer’s disease or related dementias, everything quickly becomes about the disease, says Cindy Paullin, volunteer coordinator for Art for the Journey, the local nonprofit that piloted the program in Richmond. But the difference with OMA is “it is a person-centered, rather than a disease-centered approach.”

The OMA program helps residents, who might normally feel isolated, get to know one another and feel a part of something. Participating in this project also gives the residents a chance to make their own choices (What color do I want to use? Do I want to use a roller or a brush? What should I name my artwork?) and gain a sense of accomplishment and pride in their work.

After the project at St. Mary’s Woods was completed, community relations coordinator, Nan Pascal, says the results were actually visible. Residents, who had never interacted before, were walking into the dining room together as well as standing up straighter and holding their heads higher. For another resident, who typically wouldn’t venture past several familiar spots in the building, walking to art class with her student partner “expanded her world.” You’ll now find her all over the building!

The intergenerational program had an equally powerful effect on the student participants from Virginia Commonwealth’s APSiRE program. While guiding and supporting the seniors, the young people also made longtime friends. Says one student: “This has opened my mind about art and its relationship with people. It’s not just an object to be looked at; it is also a tool to heal.”

St. Mary’s Woods residents had so much fun that they’re anxious to repeat the experience. They’ll have that opportunity when Art for the Journey conducts the OMA program again in the fall. The organization’s hope is to take the program to other Richmond retirement communities in the future.

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