Dementia Patient Paints her Life’s ‘Journey’
(Written by Jeannie Wiley Wolf, a reporter for The (Findlay) Courier. Story originally published April 9, 2019).
Three large acrylic paintings titled “The Journey Through” depict the impact of occupational therapy on a patient and family facing Alzheimer’s disease.
They will soon decorate the living room of the occupational therapy adaptive living home on the University of Findlay campus.
The collection was created by Sandy Errett of Findlay, who was diagnosed with the progressive brain disorder in 2014. Additional painting was done by husband John and adult daughters Jodie DiRe and Julie McGlade, in collaboration between the university and Awakening Minds Art.
“It is so pretty. It is so vibrant and colorful,” Lindsey Buddelmeyer, an assistant professor in UF’s occupational therapy program, said of the paintings. “It’s so much better than I ever would have even imagined.”
Buddelmeyer has a special interest in the connection between occupational therapy and palliative care, which is specialized medical care for people living with a chronic illness that cannot be cured. A patient can be on palliative care for years, she said, adding that she’s worked with the Errett family for four years.
“The beauty is that you are there along the way of the progression of the disease,” said Buddelmeyer. “Evidence will show you – especially with oncology patients – a lot of times when they have palliative care… people are better able to manage their symptoms and they have a better quality of life.”
Buddelmeyer connected with the Erretts while working at Bridge Palliative Care, and she knew they’d be a great fit for creating patient art for the adaptive living home. And, she said, working with Awakening Minds Art had long been on her “bucket list.”
“I talked to Sarah (Crisp, founding director) and the stars were just aligned,” said Buddelmeyer. “She’s like, ‘We’re in.’”
She brought Crisp and AMA program director Megan Hall to campus to show them the adaptive living home and talk about concepts for the artwork. Then, she reached out to the Errett family, who also agreed to participate.
“At the start, my wife wasn’t really sure if she wanted to talk to Lindsey,” said John Errett, recalling the beginning of their working relationship. “She didn’t know her. She came into our home. But after she was there a couple of times, they really developed a bond. And our whole family just thinks so much of Lindsey.”
The family visited AMA and brainstormed with Crisp and Hall. John said it was “fun” to reminisce about his family’s past.
“I think a lot of times it’s good to think back of what’s happened over a period of time instead of just living today and the future in this situation that we have. I think it was very good,” he said.
John and Sandy Errett met in high school and also attended the same church. “We were high school sweethearts,” he said.
They now have four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter, and will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary next month.
“We have a kind of unique family situation. We’ve very close,” said John. “We get together almost every weekend, dinner at somebody’s house, we get pizza or something, play cards. So our daughters and sons-in-law are very supportive of Sandy and I both, so it makes it awesome.”
Crisp and Hall saw the couple’s story as a journey.
“And I said, ‘I love the idea because I feel like we’re all on a journey and there’s different bumps along the road,” Buddelmeyer said.
Hall took all of those memories and sketched out ideas for the paintings.
“We wanted to focus on where Alzheimer’s and dementia started rearing its head, and then kind of how occupational therapy helped them take the pieces and get something set up functionable where everyone could enjoy their time with each other and continue their life after that,” she said.
They deiced on three canvases to tell the story. The first tells the story of the couple’s early life, which includes the importance of church and their interest in camping. The second canvas depicts ia storm coming, which is the Alzheimer’s disease. Lightning bolts contain words that spell out some of the different care challenges they have faced, such as short-term memory loss, sadness and communication. The third painting features a rainbow after the storm, which is how occupational therapy has helped alleviate some of those challenges.
The family visited AMA on two Friday afternoons and painted. Sandy said she’d never done anything like this before.
“The only art I did was what we did in here,” she said, adding that it was fun.
“She made it easy,” John said, referring to Hall.
Buddelmeyer stopped to watch the process one afternoon.
“They had music playing that she liked, she was painting, she was laughing with her family. It was just really, really touching to see, and I knew she could do it,” Buddelmeyer said of Sandy.
McGlade described the experience as “a treasure.”
“We got to do it that moment, but down the road, we’re always going to have that memory, and it’s preserved,” she said. “And the fact that it’s our family is a huge blessing to us.”
Both daughters expressed an interest in doing more paintings together with their family.
“I find it very therapeutic, sharing our story and then just kind of thinking about it as you paint,” said DiRe. “But I think for all of us, our purpose really in doing it, too, is to just let people know that you’re not alone. There is help out there if you’re going through a tough situation like this. You don’t have to be by yourself and there’s support and people that are there for you.”
A dedication ceremony for the paintings will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at the Mazza Museum. Buddelmeyer said the event will celebrate the Errett family’s openness to share their journey, and will hopefully inspire others to know that there’s help available.
Crisp said the experience has been a good one for AMA as well.
“Not always are we blessed with a family that is so close,” she said. “Sometimes we have those families, it’s a stretch for them to find activities to do together or to want to be together. So we really take a lot of pride in how our programming can bring people together.”
The paintings will hang at the Mazza Museum for a month before being moved to their permanent location in the adaptive living house.
The dedication ceremony is free to attend. Reservations should be made with Cathy Hocanson, administrative assistant for the occupational therapy program, at 419-434-6558 or firstname.lastname@example.org.