It's an art program, but it's more about the art of human connections.
The masterpieces are the participants living with Alzheimer's, their caregivers and the volunteers who produce Arts 4 Alzheimer's at the Columbus Museum.
Chuck Wilson's 78-year-old wife, Evelyn, wouldn't talk with him on car rides, but the former Double Churches Elementary School teacher, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's several years ago, spoke full sentences during her second session in the program.
"It's allowed her to break loose," said Chuck, 72.
"It just shows you that art can be very therapeutic even for cognitive diseases," said Amanda Hughes, programs and services director for the Alzheimer's Association Chattahoochee Valley region, "and it's a support group for the caregivers. Everyone leaves feeling like the plants have aligned."
Atlanta artist Tania Becker worked with the Museum of Modern Art in New York to start the program in 2009 at the Spruill Center for the Arts in Dunwoody, Ga. The program expanded to the Columbus Museum last year.
The Columbus program meets the second and fourth Wednesday of every month, 10:30 a.m. to noon. Although the program is free for participants, they must register and be screened by the Alzheimer's Association. St. Francis Hospital and the fifth generation of the Bradley-Turner Foundation fund the local program's $1,200 to $1,500 in expenses, said Abbie Edens, the museum's education curator.
Evelyn was president of the Columbus Artists' Guild, but Edens emphasized that no artistic background or talent is needed to participate.
Program volunteer Celia Solomon, a licensed professional counselor, explained the power of art as therapy for folks with Alzheimer's.
"It gives them a narrative to their life," Solomon said. "They can say, 'Oh, this reminds me of the time when I , and it stimulates conversation when we show a lot of curiosity about what they are doing."
Edens has noticed the benefit of fellowship.
"It's just as much about the social engagement," Edens said. "There's hugs, there's chatter. It may seem like it's a little chaotic, but I think our artist educators and volunteers look forward to seeing them just as much as they look forward to seeing us."
Indeed, just ask program volunteers Carol Channell and Sandy Kes.
"Sometimes we just chat or tell jokes, anything that gets their interest," Channell said.
The mood is light, but the significance is heavy.
"It's letting them feel they have the freedom to express themselves, and there's no judgment," Kes said. "There's no right answer; everything is right."
And the program gives caregivers respites and resources. Alice Mayfield said she has gained information and insight about Alzheimer's during the program. She has learned to be more patient with her 75-year-old husband, Howard, a retired Fort Benning drill sergeant who served during the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"People don't realize how hard it is," said Alice, 79. "He forgets things, and I get on him, and then he'll get on me, but he can't help it."
The Cusseta couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary this year.
"He doesn't take to too many people, but they care enough for him here so he'll mingle a little bit," Alice said. "The volunteers are wonderful. They make us feel so comfortable."
Even after they get off to an embarrassing start.
Jack Jordan, 75, laughed when he recalled the first time he took his 54-year-old daughter, former Blackmon Road Middle School teacher Martha Ennis, to the program: "Everyone thought I was the one with Alzheimer's."
He turned to watch his daughter, immersed in her art project, and added, "This has really helped us."
HOW TO PARTICIPATE
Arts 4 Alzheimer's at the Columbus Museum has four participants now, but the free program has room for four to six more, said Abbie Edens, the museum's education curator, "although we would have to get more artist educators and volunteers to still be one-on-one."
If you want to volunteer and help implement the program, call Edens at 706-748-2562, ext. 650. Volunteers don't have to be artists.
If you are living with Alzheimer's or you are a caregiver and want to participate, call Amanda Hughes, programs and services director for the Alzheimer's Association Chattahoochee Valley region, at 706-327-6838.