Does art help fight dementia? A retired professor draws her way to the answer

Teresa Unseld (right) teaches art class for seniors at St. Charles Senior Center May 30, 2017, working with Leanne Hannett (left). TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

If you’re a longtime college-level art teacher such as Teresa Unseld, you know the brain can get in the way. For seniors in her drawing class, she says, that works to their advantage.

“Today, we’re going to do more blind contours,” she told her students at St. Charles Senior Community Center, 1941 Christian St., one recent afternoon. “Instead of using your brain to draw, you’re going to let your hand follow your eye.”

Unseld taught young entry-level students at the University of the Arts and the University of Kentucky for 30 years, and she approaches art for seniors the same way.

“I give them a problem to solve,” she said. “We train the hand to follow the eye, because the brain gets in the way. I also ask my seniors to draw with their less-dominant hand — or draw upside down — using pencils, charcoal, even pastels. I try to train them that it’s not about talent, but about hard work.”

Unseld, 66, a native of Drexel Hill, argues that the arts improve physiological, mental and physical health, and offer seniors — especially those facing dementia — the opportunity to focus on the skills they have, such as creativity and the ability to form relationships, rather than what they’ve lost. She has presented papers on the subject, such as “Seniors as Artists: Creating and Developing Naturally Through Drawing” at the 2014 Pennsylvania Art Education Association conference in Seven Springs.

Recently retired from teaching at the university level, she is campaigning to get other senior centers around Philadelphia to offer art classes — and she’d love to be the instructor.

“Seniors are hungry for art education, and particularly for those with dementia, it can help create new neurological pathways in the brain and enhance memory,” Unseld said. “It builds self-esteem, confidence, and social skills. I’ve seen it among the seniors I’ve worked with. One woman’s son came to me and said, ‘Thank you for getting my mom to think outside the box.’ And she was 90 years old, and it changed her whole perspective.”

According to Unseld, art isn’t just for the talented. “It’s how we express ourselves. And seniors know tomorrow is not promised, so they appreciate putting their life experience down on paper or on the canvas.”

Her senior-center classes cost just $1.

Yeung Choi works on his assignment during an art class for seniors taught by Teresa Unseldat St. Charles Senior Center on May 30, 2017. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Unseld student Pat Rice Cooper, 73, said she “always loved drawing but couldn’t do it until I retired.”

Denise Toliver said she found out about Unseld’s classes through the senior newspaper Milestones and began taking the courses in 2014. “I’ve come back every year,” Toliver said. “It’s relaxing. When I’m upset, I take out my paper and it soothes me.”

Rachel Chandler, 90, decided to take up drawing after her husband died a few years ago. “It’s something completely different for me,” she said, working on an abstract drawing.

Said Kimberly Beatty, program coordinator at St. Charles: “It helps fight dementia, and they’re also learning how to interact, to share, and cooperate and problem-solve, rather than just sitting in front of the television.”

For more information, contact Unseld through her website, teresaunseld.com, or St. Charles Senior Center at 215-790-9764.

Seniors applaud their art teacher, Teresa Unseld (not shown), after she critiqued their work at a class at St. Charles Senior Center on May 30, 2017. From left are Ruo Xiao He, Yeung Choi, Yuk Chun Chan, and Pat Cooper. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

 

More opportunities for art

Philadelphia’s Fleisher Art Memorial, though it was founded in the 19th century as a sketch club for lower- and middle-class children, now offers affordable art classes for all ages, and “seniors tend to make up a lot of our daytime students, since they have more time,” said spokesman Dominic Mercier.

“We don’t cater to seniors,” Mercier said. “But at one point we did have a 100-year-old student here. Seniors are generally repeat customers — it’s interactive, and they spend a lot of time together.”

Fleisher offers six-week and 10-week daytime sessions, from $25 to $250 and up, depending on studio fees. Members receive a discount. For more information, call 215-922-3456, visit at 719 Catherine St. in Bella Vista, or go to Fleisher.org.

Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library outside Wilmington has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to host a monthly program called “Historical Journeys” that offers patients in the earlier stages of dementia and their caregivers a fun way to socialize without the stigma of disease.

Those suffering from dementia “typically feel isolation. They have the opportunity to interact with these exhibits without fear of judgment,” said David Johnson, rec center coordinator for the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter. The program is free and takes place on the second Tuesday of the month. The museum’s docents focus on familiar objects, such as the DuPont family’s china collection.

To participate, contact Johnson at the Philadelphia office of the Alzheimer’s Association. The organization also offers arts and art history incorporated into other treatment programs through centers in Marlton and at 399 Market St. For more information or to register, call the Alzheimer’s Association hotline, 1-800-272-3900.

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