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Chelmsford art program helps Alzheimer’s patients focus

Photos by Jim Davis/Globe Staff

George Ouellette was getting grouchy. Retired for years and alone since the death of his wife in 2012, the Chelmsford resident was showing signs of senile dementia, and he could be irascible and difficult with caretakers.

Now, however, he seemed perfectly content. He was working on an elaborate drawing, humming happily as he leaned over his project. His health-service aide — a woman originally from Ghana — sat at his side, watching quietly.

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Ouellette, 89, did some sketching way back in high school and college, when he was hoping to go to medical school. Then his parents’ increasing poverty and World War II got in the way.

The memories might be fading, but his focus on his drawing has not.

“I like red,” he said when asked about his favorite color to use, “because it’s the first thing you see when you look at the picture. They see that red, they stop and look.”

Ouellette is one of dozens of seniors who attend the day program at the Chelmsford Senior Center, where the staff is taking an innovative approach to elder care with a “no fail” theory of activities programming.

Cognitive and physical therapy can be frustrating for seniors whose minds and bodies might be failing them, said Colleen Normandy, manager of the day program. But art projects like the one a roomful of retirees was working on at the Senior Center recently — sections of a large mural composed of colorful buttons the seniors were busily sorting and gluing — make the participants feel as though they are succeeding at something.

‘It’s a lot of fun, and the families tell us, “Oh My God, it’s enriched their lives so much.” ’

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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, which is based in Chicago and has branches nationwide, including Watertown and three others in Massachusetts — art projects can help create a sense of accomplishment and purpose, as well as an opportunity for self-expression.

Natalie Tuck, 78, is an example. She patiently applied glue to buttons as her daughter, Pam Andruskiewicz, spoke about the benefits of the Chelmsford program.

Her mother, who lives at home with the family, has moderate Alzheimer’s disease and can no longer be left alone, said Andruskiewicz.

“This program has been a godsend for us,” she said. “It took us a lot to get her to go.”

Of the mild delusions her mother had been suffering, “that has definitely ceased,” Andruskiewicz said. “Once in a while here’s something funky, but her mind is kept busy every day. She’ll call it work — ‘I’m going to work.’ It’s cute.”

A few years ago, Normandy hired Maxine Shaw, a former art teacher at Central Catholic High School in Lawrence, to design activities for the groups.

“There comes a time in folks’ lives when they’re vulnerable,” said Normandy, speaking over the chatter of the artists. “They’re either isolated at home or they have mental impairment.

“This is a nice model. It’s a lot of fun, and the families tell us, ‘Oh my God, it’s enriched their lives so much.’ ”

Since her arrival, Shaw has created complex group projects that result in big, bright collages and mixed-media assemblages that hang on the walls in the center. Down the hall from the art room, she proudly showed off the oversized image of a cardinal, hanging in the cafeteria, where tables of seniors were playing bingo.

“O, 75,” intoned the bingo announcer through a microphone. “Seven, five.”

The cardinal is a particular favorite of the staff and the other retirees who use the Senior Center, said Shaw. Her students are “like rock stars, with their pictures on the wall. It’s not based on artistic skill, but their willingness to be creative, to try something new.”

In the hallway, Shaw pointed out other completed projects, including one that involves colored yarn wrapped tightly around tree branches and an exercise that incorporated Zentangle, a method of drawing that uses simple, repeated patterns to make much larger images. Zentangle is especially good, Shaw said, since it “requires more from the brain.”

If she made the pieces herself, they might not be so special, Shaw said. But they are when they are created by “90-year-old hands and their life experiences.”

According to Senior Center director Debi Siriani, 26 percent of Chelmsford residents are over age 60. People who take advantage of the center can come for either three- or six-hour sessions of adult day care.

“There are lots of day programs, but not social day programs in senior centers,” she said. “A lot of places have been talking to us, wanting to model this program.”

Viola Ferreira, 91, said she started coming to the Senior Center when she “got lonesome” at home. Shaw “always has good projects for us, and we usually follow right through.”

Across the table, a lively man named Jack LaMountain responded to a staff member’s good-natured teasing of Viola. “Watch out for her, she’s a little fresh,” he said.

“We call this the sunshine table,” he added with a laugh.

That prompted a group sing-along of “You Are My Sunshine,” which built quickly from a few faint voices to a rousing chorus.

In the hallway, Pam Andruskiewicz smiled. The social day program at the Senior Center is “what has kept her going, definitely,” she said of her mother. “No doubt.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.
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