How this art class is helping people living with dementia and their loved ones

Opening Minds through Art
Posted at 2:16 PM, Mar 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-12 12:04:42-04

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — Ever since they said "I do" in 1976, Tom and Mary Anna Link have been side by side through highs and lows. Over the last three years, the couple from Hanover County has been enduring a chapter of growing loss.

Mary Anna’s world is dimming after a diagnosis of dementia.

"I can see now there were changes going on probably that we weren’t even aware of at the time,” Tom said.

But a few miles away, there is a place offering the husband and wife a brief escape from the insidious disease through chorus, color, and camaraderie.

At the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen, trained volunteers like Jayne Smith team up with seniors living with the brain disorder.

Opening Minds through Art

“It makes my heart happy,” Smith said about her volunteer work with the Opening Minds through Art (OMA) program.

The eight-week, free program by Art for the Journey stimulates and empowers artists.

Sally Johnson is Mary Anna’s partner for the two-month art class.

“We have a great time together. We laugh a lot,” Johnson said.

In class, the challenges of the disease are washed away, at least for a little while.

“It is just an amazing program. It is all about relationships. It is all about fostering creativity. It is all about fostering autonomy,” Amy Holland, the Program Director at the Cultural Arts Center in Glen Allen, said.

But the Program Director at the Center witnesses the benefits of OMA week after week.

"[Dementia] is a long, slow process. You’re losing little pieces of the person you love. Just a little bit at a time," she said. “This illness can take a lot away from a person. Our job is to connect with the person who is still in there."

Holland knows the weight of a dementia diagnosis too well. She cared for her father before he lost his battle in 2021.

“I think it is fair to say that we have a lot of stigma in our culture surrounding this and people shy away from it,” Holland said.

This program actually serves two purposes.

 Opening Minds through Art

Next door to the art studio caregivers like Tom Link find respite and rapport.

“For one thing they’re not alone. They’re meeting people walking the same path that they are and they’re not alone,” Holland said. “Just like we’ve watched Mary Anna relax. We’ve watched Tom relax.”

A grateful Tom admires the team’s dedication to his wife and the other seniors.

Volunteer Sally Johnson said the bond with Mary Anna strengthens with every brush stroke.

“We have enjoyed getting to know each other. I’ve gotten to know her husband Tom,” Johnson said.

Helping her partner blossom along her journey touches her soul.

“I am motivated to come here because this is the best of humanity,” Johnson said.

As the 60-minute class draws to a close, supplies are stored and artwork admired.

For the artists like Mary Anna Link, memories of their masterpieces and friends made this week may fade fast, but the inner joy just may linger long after the paint dries.

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