Encore Mural Brings Benefits of Art to Residents with Memory Loss

Written by Jenny Smiechowski, staff writer for The Birches

When Katie Schaff Fagan became director of The Birches Assisted Living’s memory care neighborhood Encore, she had one particular dream for Encore.

“A dream of mine for so long has been to have the walls of Encore reflect the residents,” said Fagan.

So when Fagan interviewed Mary Sandoval for an activities assistant position in Encore and Sandoval told her about her experience painting murals and her desire to paint with residents, Fagan knew Sandoval was the right person to turn Encore’s walls into a reflection of the residents who live there.

Fagan and Sandoval worked together to create Encore’s first ever mural painting family night, which took place last Wednesday. Encore residents and their family members came together to socialize, paint and make a lasting impression on the walls of Encore.

Sandoval, who spent weeks planning the mural project, has been painting since she was a child and even attended art school in Paris. When she was planning the project, she drew inspiration from her childhood, her mom and her favorite artist—Vincent van Gogh.

“When I was a kid my mom taught me to paint, and I loved van Gogh. So one time, in my closet, I painted yellow flowers like van Gogh’s sunflowers,” said Sandoval. “My dad was mad, but my mom saw something in me. So when I told her we were going to be painting a mural in Encore, she said, ‘Do your happy yellow flowers.’”

In Encore’s mural, Sandoval used foam board to create textured, 3D flowers, which residents and their family members took turns painting yellow.

Sandoval also recruited two Encore residents, Betty Howard and Jan Morey, to draw flowers on small canvasses before the event. These canvasses were then made available to residents and their family members during the event, so they could sit down and paint the flowers Howard and Morey had drawn while they waited for their turn on the mural.

Sandoval enjoys creating art with residents who have dementia, but to do so, she takes a special approach.

“It’s helpful to break things into segments for people with dementia,” said Sandoval.

For the residents who helped draw flowers on the small canvasses, for example, she taught them to draw sunflowers in segments, covering up most of the canvas except for the part they were working on.

Of course, regardless of the approach or outcome, Sandoval believes painting, along with other artistic endeavors, provides cognitive and emotional benefits to people with dementia.

“There’s a video about the benefits of creativity in people with Alzheimer’s that really inspired me called ‘I Remember Better When I Paint,’” said Sandoval. “I’ve found that art breaks the barrier.”

Encore resident Vera Livingston says painting certainly brings back memories for her, but mostly because her husband and her father were painters, and she used to help them.

“Artists are all in my family. I had a houseful of paintings, and they’re beautiful,” said Livingston. “I used to do it a long time ago too. To make something new out of something old is satisfying, that’s probably why I did it.”

Nancy Matthews, daughter of Birches resident Lillian Farren says that even though her mom is in the later stages of dementia, she benefits from being around creative pursuits like art and music.

“She’s getting to the point where she can’t understand much anymore. But I can tell she likes music because her hands will start moving,” said Matthews. “I want her to be able to paint something, so it shows up here.”

In the end, Encore’s mural project allowed all residents to make a lasting mark on the walls of Encore. It’s a tribute to their lives and the character, personality and joy they contribute to Encore. It’s also a tribute to Sandoval’s mom, who died in April.

“She remembered about the yellow flowers I painted up until three days before she passed away,” said Sandoval. “And she still painted until the end. I had to hold the brush for her, but she still painted.”