Carol Silver Elliott
Carol Silver Elliott

Dementia is an intractable adversary, a symptom of a collection of diseases that take away memory, thinking skills and control. A central part of our mission as care providers is to preserve the abilities and dignity of those who live with dementia and, when possible, unlock even briefly the person within.

Over the past three years, my staff and I have witnessed remarkable success in these areas from Opening Minds through Art, or OMA, an innovative art program developed by Elizabeth Lokon, Ph.D., of Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center.

Bringing OMA to our assisted living, adult day and nursing facilities has improved the well-being of our residents, given new perspectives to our staff and bolstered our community relations. This article will review our implementation process and offer suggestions for adopting this effective, economical and inspiring program.

OMA for people living with dementia

Founded in 2007 and now implemented in more than 50 facilities across the United States and Canada, OMA helps people with dementia leverage imagination (rather than memory) to express themselves through visual art, using person-centered care principles. Extensive peer-reviewed research has been published on results, and the program has won numerous awards, including a grant from the Ohio Department of Medicaid for implementation at 100 additional nursing homes.

“OMA makes intergenerational partnerships one of the cornerstones of its program, pairing each elder with a volunteer, often a college student, who has received training in how to communicate with individuals with dementia,” Lokon has written. In a typical session, a leader presents artwork as inspiration, sometimes showing work by a noted abstract artist, after which participants are given art supplies and a step-by-step process sheet with built-in choices so they can experiment on their own. (Please see the accompanying slideshow.)

Although the volunteer partners provide guidance and support, a central principle of OMA is that aesthetic decisions are made exclusively by the participant. As Lokon explains, most people with dementia have virtually all of their decisions made for them, so “this is the one hour when they get to decide everything on their own.”

This illuminates an especially powerful aspect of OMA: Participants are treated as adults and helped to tap into their artistic imagination, a channel that often remains intact even when logical and verbal expressions are impaired. This aspect contrasts with many well-meaning art programs for elders, which in my experience infantilize the participants with rote activities, an approach that undermines the preservation of abilities and dignity.

Moreover, art created in OMA often is of remarkably high quality, becoming a point of great pride for the participants. We display it prominently in gallery-style areas of our facilities (please see the accompanying slideshow), and visitors consistently are surprised and impressed when told about its origins. Our opening receptions are powerful events for participants, their families and volunteers, and a local coffee shop has held two OMA exhibitions that have resulted in many works being purchased. (Please see the accompanying slideshow.)

Those coffee shop displays also caught the attention of a curator from the Belskie Museum of Art and Science, which will hold a show of OMA works in June, an unexpected new community connection for our organization, and an almost unimaginable triumph for our residents with dementia.

Implementation at Jewish Home Family facilities

Dementia care was a priority when I assumed my current role in 2014 at Jewish Home Family, a century-old elder care organization in northern New Jersey. I’d had the pleasure of working with Dr. Lokon on an early OMA implementation at a nursing home near Cincinnati, and my firsthand observations confirmed her published research findings that people with dementia benefit from one-on-one creative activities and that those who participate in OMA exhibit higher levels of well-being than those seen in other art programs. (See studies here and here.)

We launched a pilot OMA program in 2015, sending the activity directors from our assisted living, adult day and nursing home programs to Miami University for four days of training. They learned the scientific background of OMA, worked one-on-one in sessions with people with dementia and led sessions themselves – and returned full of enthusiasm.

OMA programs typically run for 12 weeks, but we began with a four-week test session that summer for 24 participants. Our volunteer coordinator found it relatively easy to recruit volunteer participants, due to OMA’s engaging subject matter and one-on-one structure, and we are now able to offer continuing OMA programs at all three facilities with 35 to 40 participants at any given time.

Program costs are modest; they include staff training and volunteer recruitment and fees for artist-leaders. We also purchase paint, paper, ink, and other art-grade materials (Please see the accompanying slideshow; supplies are available through art supply dealers like Dick Blick, Jerry’s Artarama, Cheap Joe’s or ASW Express). In addition, because of the importance and appeal of displaying OMA artworks, we installed art hanging systems with integrated lighting (purchased from Gallery System Art Displays). The easily adjustable hanging systems enable program leaders to quickly create professional-looking displays without assistance from our facilities staff, and ensure that walls remain undamaged.

Results to date of our OMA program

Three years after its implementation, OMA represents one of our most powerful interventions. We use simple OMA-provided questionnaires to assess participants’ sense of well-being before and after sessions, and we consistently find improvement.

A slide in the accompanying slideshow shows a typical set of well-being scores for eight participants, averaged over a 12-week semester. Seven of the eight show substantial improvement; the numbers also reflect something we’ve noticed anecdotally: people who feel the worst beforehand sometimes show the most improvement.

Beyond those metrics are countless personal success stories, such as the moment at our first OMA exhibition when a woman with mid-stage dementia looked at her painting and said, “Is that my work? I didn’t realize I was an artist!” Or the younger woman who credited OMA with helping her being able to move beyond living in a secure dementia unit, become more verbal and engaged, and enter an internal university program where she became valedictorian of her class.

Our staff members also have benefitted, in part because OMA provides powerful examples of people with dementia transcending their illness. Our former director of volunteer services, Charlene Vannucci, recalls a day when one resident was very upset, agitated and inconsolable despite the best efforts of staffers to calm her. “OMA was about to begin, and we walked her into the room, where she stopped and stood still. You could see that, although she could not express herself, she knew exactly what she was there for. She calmed down, sat down to do art and created a masterpiece. It still gives me goosebumps when I think about it.”

Suggestions for implementation

We can offer a wholehearted endorsement of OMA’s value in dementia care. Here are a few tips for effective implementation.

  • Tap into OMA’s resources. The program website is rich in information and opportunities, and training programs are well-conceived and economical.
  • Cultivate “champions” on your staff. You probably have staff members who would be enthusiastic about participating in OMA. Get them trained and turn them loose. Success stories will follow.
  • Pay attention to displays. Showing the OMA artworks benefits the artists and their families, engages visitors and can lead to broader exposure, such as our coffee shop shows and museum exhibition. This has easily justified our investment in art hanging equipment.
  • Make openings an event. We hold several OMA exhibitions each year, inviting residents, volunteers, families and relatives. They’ve proven to be celebratory, community-building occasions for all.
  • Use OMA as a networking opportunity. It’s an ideal way to engage and build connections with schools, arts-oriented businesses and organizations, and volunteer groups in your community, and also can generate great publicity.

Carol Silver Elliott has been president and CEO of Jewish Home Family Inc. since 2014. The organization is the parent of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, Jewish Home Assisted Living, Jewish Home Foundation and Jewish Home at Home. Previously, Silver Elliott was president and CEO of Cedar Village Retirement Community in Cincinnati. Chair-elect of the LeadingAge Board of Directors, she is the former chair of the Association of Jewish Aging Services and remains on the board. She is also a member of the boards of LeadingAge New Jersey and the Visiting Nurse Association.