As the resident of a long-term care facility looks through a notebook of paintings, a scene of a white fence with red geraniums catches her eye. This is the picture she will paint today.
Her therapist, Patricia Hinckley, puts shades of blue and purple acrylic paint onto a canvas to produce the background. Hinckley then asks the woman to move her paintbrush from left to right, and the colors merge as the woman slowly drags the brush across the canvas. Vertical brush strokes with white paint create the fence. Light dabs of a sponge sprout the red geraniums and emerald green leaves.
This is not a typical art lesson. The elderly woman suffers from memory loss, and this session aims to help rekindle her memories. For 30 minutes, Hinckley leads her client in MnemeTherapy (the first part pronounced “Nemma”), which assists people with cognitive impairments resulting from such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke and autism spectrum disorder. Named for the Greek muse of memory, MnemeTherapy utilizes singing, movement, “directed painting,” storytelling and praise to stimulate the brain and encourage neuroplasticity, the nervous system’s capacity for developing new neuronal connections.
“I give them a good day,” Hinckley says of her clients. “In that half hour we connect and I can see the person that they were.”
With her painting complete, the client lights up with unmistakable joy. Just as important, though, each brushstroke and sponge dab has helped trigger the woman’s memories. A recollection of a barn. A remembrance of a fence with red geraniums planted near pink peonies that separated the woman’s yard from the neighbors’.
“It’s like rebuilding a bridge,” Hinckley says. “After painting, the goal towards the end is to get them storytelling. We try and engage them in something that connects in their brain.”
MnemeTherapy was created by Noell Hammer, founder of the Art Without Boundaries Association in Florida, which trains MnemeTherapists. Hinckley, who has a master’s degree in counseling psychology and counseling education from Western Michigan University, had been trained in utilizing intuitive art in her therapy. Responding to an advertisement for MnemeTherapy, she enrolled in the self-paced online course. In September, she became Michigan’s first certified MnemeTherapist.
“We study all types of brain injury and dysfunctions as well as just general anatomy and function,” Hinckley says of the training. “It truly is a multifaceted curriculum that is broad in scope but specific in topic.”
Hinckley begins each client’s session with singing and movement. Sitting face-to-face, they sing and hold hands, swinging arms left to right. Then comes a game of patty-cake, in which Hinckley has the client say “left” and “right” as the corresponding hand touches her own. Next, Hinckley has the client cross right hand to left leg, and vice versa. All of this has a purpose. “Both sides of the brain react to movement,” she explains.
Recently Hinckley worked with a client at Reflections Memory Care, in Battle Creek, who appeared to have mid- to late-stage Alzheimer’s. (Medical confidentiality restrictions prohibit Hinckley from knowing her clients’ impairments. However, her training allows her to makes some observations.) When Hinckley arrived for the session, she found the woman stressed and aggravated. After gentle movement and singing, the woman unexpectedly reached out and hugged Hinckley. Looking directly into Hinckley’s eyes, the woman said, “I am alive.”
“Her whole countenance changed,” Hinckley recalls. “She was calm. She focused on the painting. It just grounded her again.”
Some of Hinckley’s clients no longer speak. As Hinckley looks at pictures with them, she watches intently for a sign — a spark in their eyes, a flicker of recognition on their faces — to gain a sense of what they might want to paint. Recently Hinckley worked with a woman who had developed deafness and hadn’t spoken in months.
“By the end of the session she was talking in sentences,” Hinckley says. “The art director later told me that my client was telling her family all about painting.”
Hinckley provides therapy for clients at many facilities around the area, including Fountain View and Tendercare, in Portage, and Park Village Pines, in Kalamazoo. Every Tuesday she works with residents at Reflections. Diana Duncan, a certified dementia practitioner at Reflections, says she thinks MnemeTherapy is “an amazing program” and that each of the facility’s 31 residents has responded to it to varying degrees.
“They are very receptive to it,” Duncan says. “We’ve had 100 percent participation. Every single resident has done MnemeTherapy at least once. The program works because it is set up for success. We have some very low-functioning residents who are able to participate.”
Hinckley says MnemeTherapy provides invaluable benefits not only to clients, but to their loved ones as well. “The family has a painting that was a positive memory,” she says, “and that’s priceless.”