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July 22, 2017

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With each stroke of the paintbrush, a magical transformation

Adult Day Care Center of Las Vegas instructor sees art make a difference for seniors with Alzheimer’s


Steve Marcus

Lilly” Yuriko Ondo, 79, poses with her painting at the Nevada Senior Services Adult Day Care Center of Las Vegas, 901 N. Jones Blvd., on Wednesday, May 14, 2014.

Seniors’ Art

Dee Dee Woodberry, activities and art director, stands by a display of artwork made by seniors at the Nevada Senior Services Adult Day Care Center of Las Vegas, 901 N. Jones Blvd., Wednesday, May 14, 2014. The artwork at the center is mostly made with repurposed materials. Launch slideshow »

To learn more

For more information about the Adult Day Care Center of Las Vegas or Henderson, contact Nevada Senior Services, (702) 648-3425

Dee Dee Woodberry buzzed around a table of seniors painting pictures on a recent afternoon at the Adult Day Care Center of Las Vegas.

The men and women around the table chuckled and grinned as they either painted flowers on a sheet of paper or twisted paper towel sheets to make a textured design on an empty can that will become a menu holder. From time to time, Woodberry, art director at the center, offered words of encouragement or direction.

But mostly she just watched the magic happen.

Many of the men and women come to the center in varying stages of Alzheimer's or dementia. Some are losing the ability to talk and others are quickly losing pieces of themselves, but when they come to the art table, all that changes.

With each painting, the colors and design conjure connections to past memories or experiences long-forgotten. A man will tell Woodberry the color blue reminds him of the suit he once wore as a kid. A woman will say she chose yellow because her mother had a yellow dress.

Woodberry’s art class helps unlocks a part of her students that medicine can’t.

“With Alzheimer’s, people try to treat it,” Woodberry said. “Art addresses it all the way. It opens them up in a way where they’re not caught up in the premise of what Alzheimer’s is to everybody.”

Behind Woodberry’s desk, nearly every inch of her wall is covered in paintings done by the seniors. They are in all colors; in abstract and in literal interpretation. Below them is a case display filled with crafts made from used materials. There are coffee canisters turned bongo drums, water jugs made into vases, old paper towel tubes formed into rain sticks and bracelets.

Each is unique, representing a piece of the person who painted it or crafted it.

Woodberry, who has an art background, started volunteering at the day care center’s art program about five years ago. The nonprofit center offers a free place for senior citizens and adults with disabilities to stay active and remain independent in the community.

The center offers music classes, dancing, live entertainment, tai chi, hydroponics, and, of course, art.

“Everything we do here has a purpose to keep a person with Alzheimer's or dementia from losing all of themselves,” Woodberry said. “We can’t change what Alzheimer's or dementia does to them, but we can slow it down with art therapy or music or dance.”

Woodberry emphasizes individual expression during her art courses. Sometimes she’ll ask her students to paint what love means to them. Or she might ask them to make a Rorschach print and name it what it means to them.

Many of the seniors’ projects involve transforming used items into jewelry or musical instruments. Mostly, though, they like painting flowers. Their paintings are on display along nearly every wall at the center. Some of the works will be sold in June at First Friday.

On this day, Ellen Jackson, 63, painted a vase of flowers. For Jackson, who has Alzheimer's, painting the flowers reminded her of summer and Fourth of July.

“It’s an achievement,” Jackson said. “It’s something positive and cheerful.”

When Lilly Ondo, 79, was asked about her paintings, her face lit up into a smile that said more than she could articulate. She’s at the table daily painting something new.

Woodberry doesn’t have the scientific background to examine what art does to the mind and body of a person, but she knows what she sees.

When she started, she knew two seniors who never said a word and rarely participated in activities. With art, they began laughing, talking and even participating in the morning’s Pledge of Allegiance in front of the entire center.

“Art is a way of letting go whatever is inside of you,” Woodberry said.

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