Memories in the Making: Helping adults with dementia rebound after isolation from the pandemic

Posted at 2:45 PM, Feb 02, 2022

Brad Stolz cherishes every moment he has with his 92-year-old grandmother, Marion. She’s been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

“Bradley, I love him," Marion said. "The best grandson ever. Well, they're all good.”

Alzheimer's is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking and behavior. Stolz says he tries to visit his grandmother whenever he gets the chance.

“Dementia gets a lot worse when they don't interact with people," Stolz said. "I saw that with another grandparent of mine where he was very isolated just because of the circumstances and kind of where he ended up being later in life. And he declined very quickly.”

Social isolation among older people was already a problem before the pandemic. COVID-19 has only made the situation worse.

Farhana Ferdous, who is an assistant professor at Howard University, recently released a report that analyzes the impact of COVID-19-related social distancing requirements on older adults living in long-term care facilities.

“There has been a growing body of research about the social isolation and how it is associated with anxiety, depression and faster cognitive decline,” Ferdous said.

She calls social isolation a public health threat that increases a person’s risk for dementia by 40%. Jim Herlihy with the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado says a person's quality of life is significantly better when those with dementia have social interaction.

“The people who have been isolated, we've heard from their loved ones who said, ‘I've seen my mom or my dad decline faster than I've ever seen them,'" Herlihy said. "And it becomes a spiral.”

That’s one reason why Memories in the Making was created. Herlihy says Memories in the Making is designed to help people with dementia recreate memories through watercolor painting.

“Drawing and art taps into parts of the brain that are still more active than maybe the verbal centers and gives people a chance to tap into memories and express themselves and give them a way to communicate,” Herlihy said.

Kelly Nixon has led the class as an administrator at her facility for six years.

“Once they start that process of painting something, you can generally pull a memory from what they're painting,” Nixon said.

Although the classes were put on hold in the thick of the pandemic, Nixon says she continued with one-on-one sessions.

“But a one-on-one isn't the same as them being together," Nixon said. "Being with each other is really what it's all about to get those memories and to share those memories with everybody.”

Nixon says she loves seeing friendships build through the class.

“You can really see the anxiety lift off of people by being around people that are of that same mindset,” Nixon said.

"The social aspect, I think, definitely helps to keep her sharp and keep her engaged on a day-to-day basis,” Stolz said.

Because of his past experience with his grandfather, Stolz says his family didn’t let the pandemic keep them from visiting Marion. He says he’s happy to see his grandmother is in good hands.

“I was thrilled when I got here to see that she, not only is she, you know, being a part of it, but she's actually enjoying herself and, you know, enjoying the conversation and sort of putting some of her thoughts and ideas on paper,” Stolz said.