I invited all of the seniors to join me at two of the tables that we use for both table games and for meals/snacks. Two of the seniors opted not to join and instead retreated to the recliners in the back room. The rest sat down. I talked briefly about art and about how some art is called abstract. I held up a piece of black paper and then selected a couple of the pre-cut shapes from a small stack. I held the shapes up against the paper. I spoke about composition and about movement in artwork. One of the younger seniors has a great affection for jazz and blues. He listened carefully to my words and shook his head in agreement.
I then placed several of the pre-cut shapes out on the table in front of the seated seniors. I also gave each person a piece of black paper and some glue. Lastly, I invited them to select several pieces and to move them around their paper a bit until they had constructed the composition that most appealed to them.
Inviting them to select their own shapes is a very important component. It is an exercise in decision making. It provides them the opportunity to make choices and to accept those choices.
One of the cornerstones of the Montessori philosophy is to promote each individual's independence. The balance between dependence and independence needs to be continually promoted. When one of the seniors asked me how to get the glue out of the glue stick, I twisted the base slowly to show how it rises up the tube and handed it back to her. I did not glue the piece on for her, she did.
Some added small bits here and there. One woman said her middle piece had the shape of a woman and she wanted to add small curls of color to signify a sense of movement, of dance. She looked at me after she glued the curls and said, "I have never done anything like this. I never worked with just shapes, but I like it. I like it a lot."
In my classroom I invited my students to add details to their work. I did the same during this project with the seniors. I removed the remaining pieces of paper that had not been selected for use. I then placed oil pastels on the tables and invited all to add details to their art work. A few declined saying that they liked their work as is. Others immediately reached for the pastels and began working. I walked around the periphery of the table rarely assisting.
When all of the pieces were completed, they were taped up on the outside of one of the cabinets. Different than the Montessori world, when working with seniors with dementia a lot of praise and compliments are given. Too, art work done by seniors is often displayed on the walls.
Let me talk a little about the displaying of art work. I am still relatively new at my position but I have come to see the display of art works in a two-fold manner. The first is that the seniors want to know that they can still achieve success in a variety of ways. They see the art on the walls and, because it is not framed, have a level of awareness that it was done either by them and/or another senior. The second reason is that the art displayed is for the caregivers. Daughters, sons, grandchildren and others come in to the center and express joy at the sight of work done by their loved ones. They often state that they were unaware that their parent or grandparent could do art or other activities. The important thing to state here is that the senior, themselves, may not recall having done the art work earlier that day.
"My name is on that one so I guess I did it," is a common response by the seniors after art work is completed and hung up. Another frequent response that I get from the seniors at the Bridge is, "Susan, I think I did one of those but I don't remember which one. Can you point out the one I did?" When I do their second response is, "Oh, yes, that looks like something I would do."
Not all of the seniors at the Bridge have advanced dementia, that is not yet, and so some do recognize their art work. The important thing which I have learned is not to ask them which one is theirs as they may become agitated and frustrated because they won't know. Too, they may not join the group again next time I invite them for an art activity.
Here I am reminded of when children first learn to write. They write before they read in the Montessori Casa. We do not ask them to read their initial writings back to us because, simply put, they can't read it. This request only leads to self-doubt, embarrassment and, in extreme cases, the abandonment by the child of the act of writing. At the Bridge and in the Montessori Casa, the dignity of the individual must be preserved and protected.
So why do art activities with seniors if they can not recall doing the work later? When working with individuals suffering from dementia the goal is to provide them opportunities to engage in the moment and to foster creativity and enjoyment during that moment. Too, working with paintbrushes and colored pencils, as well as with sewing needles and other handicraft tools, helps to strengthen the prehensile grip and eye/hand co-ordination. This is the same with children in the Casa.
Working with individuals with dementia demands that I let go of my ego regarding the results of activities. I am not trying to cure them, nor am I trying to prove that Montessori is a magic wand. I am simply preparing the materials, presenting them and observing each senior use them. I offer my hand to assist as needed and I offer my smile. I listen to their stories, again and again, that tell the collective details of their lives. I get to know them as individuals. I watch their hands and find myself in a state of wonder and amazement. I make sure that they are physically stable, fill their glasses with ice and bake something artificially sweetened for their lunch-time desert. I reside in the moment with them, side by side, and then move on to the next moment. Maria Montessori wrote the following about the child. I have removed the word "child" and inserted "an individual with dementia."
"Respect all the reasonable forms of activity in which an individual with dementia engages and try to understand them."