‘Art As You Wish’ Painting Workshop Turns 5 at Health First’s Aging Services Center for Family Caregivers
By Space Coast Daily // October 7, 2023
a service of Health First’s Aging Services
Instruction is pro bono, supplies donated by contributors to the Health First Foundation
BREVARD COUNTY, FLORIDA – For five years, Jan Bryant of Cocoa has led a monthly painting workshop at the Center for Family Caregivers, a service of Health First’s Aging Services. The students are area seniors suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease or other cognitive impairment, and their caregivers.
“Do not wet your brush until I tell you to,” she says. “I’m bossy, that’s right.”
Bryant herself is the kind of stern-but-lovable field general you want at the front of your art class, if half your class is forgetful and the entire class is untrained.
“Don’t drink the water in front of you,” Bryant says, garnering a few laughs. “There’s a reason it’s in old plastic cups covered in dried paint.”
Held each month, Interpreting Art As You Wish: Appreciating Art and Time Together is two hours long and free. The instruction is meant for beginners, but more than that, it’s oriented to bring out the best in patients, and to give the caregivers something out of the ordinary.
“It’s a couple hours to focus on something else,” says Isolette Garner, whose husband Carlus sits quietly but distractedly by her side, “because mostly I’m at home with him, and he takes all my attention.”
Today’s theme is sea turtle hatchlings trekking to the surf. Memorable past themes include Paris in the Rain, the Grand Canyon, and the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.
“Some people paint the whole canvas with this brush,” Bryant tells the class, holding up a round painter’s brush, “but I’m not going to let you do that.”
The canvas, the paints, the brushes and secondary supplies are all free – paid for by contributions to the Health First Foundation – and set up when the students arrive. For Jan and her volunteers, the prep, class and cleanup are a full day of work.
‘SOCIALIZE WITHOUT EMBARRASSMENT’
The workshop is the brainchild of Bryant and Health First’s Dr. Visa Srinivasan, Medical Director of Health First’s Aging Services. When someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, often, “a lot of their friends disappear – they find it uncomfortable,” the doctor says. The patients, too, find it easy just to stop socializing because it’s increasingly difficult to find the words to express themselves, and they’re embarrassed.
“The patients and caregivers, they become isolated. So, we wanted a place where they could do activities and socialize without any sort of embarrassment,” says Dr. Visa.
At 6-feet tall, with big blue eyes and a flop of white hair that seems to glow, Bryant is so perfect in the role it would seem she does this professionally, and she does. She holds classes in Cocoa Beach and Rockledge for which she is paid – but she is not getting paid now. She does it because Dr. Visa and the center have touched her own life profoundly, and she knows what being a caregiver is all about.
JAN AND MEL
About 10 years ago, Bryant noticed her husband, Mel, 65 at the time, was having trouble with short-term recall. He was growing a bit withdrawn, too. She looked for education and services and found Health First’s Aging Services, which offers a lot of free resources thanks to the generosity of individuals and area businesses through the Health First Foundation.
On one visit, Bryant and Dr. Visa began talking about the benefit of art as a mental exercise for dementia patients – especially performed in a social setting. As the classes became regular, Bryant noticed “Mel would be involved and get excited and become communicative with other people.”
Dr. Visa says such workshops raise confidence, lower anxiety, “and offer a sense of control that is often missing in the lives of these patients.”
As dementia worsens, many patients are restless, constantly rearranging furniture, or picking at their skin.
“Engaging patients in art, music and creative activities helps them have sensory stimulation and is a good nonpharmacological way to address their fidgeting and restlessness.
Physician and artist agree that visual art seems to unlock parts of the brain that other activities may not – creativity, to be sure, but memory, too. Bryant recalls one gentleman who took her model painting and departed from it, drawing entirely different trees from the ones she had painted. With tears in her eyes, the man’s caregiver explained that he was recalling trees he saw on a wonderful fishing trip he made with his sons.
Dr. Visa has hung a number of patients’ artwork in the hallways of her memory disorder clinic next door, but tellingly, they’re hard to come by – families don’t want to part with these late examples of their loved one’s creative expression.
‘BLESSINGS THAT MAKE THE CENTER UNIQUE’
Bryant is grateful for the services and support Health First and Aging Services provides the community.
And it’s because of community support that, each month, the Center for Family Caregivers welcomes over 500 visits by local seniors with mild to moderate dementia and their caregivers. Because of donations to the Health First Foundation, a wide number of free programs are offered including support groups, music, fitness, and art classes.
It would be a mistake to imagine Jan and Mel Bryant’s life now as one of hardship and sadness.
“I approach things differently now because of what my husband needs, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t have a life. I have a wonderful life with him. But I just need to open my mind to trying different things and enjoying those things.”
“The center has opened my horizons – because we tend to be tunnel visioned, right? Here, I see I can do other things with him.”
Joyce Kennedy, who runs the center, says Jan Bryant is a blessing herself, with her “encouraging and supportive teaching style – and wonderful sense of humor.”
“Counting the blessings that make our center unique, Jan holds a very special place on that list – and in the hearts of all those enjoying an afternoon of what she describes as, Interpreting Art As You Wish: Appreciating Art and Time Together.”
‘BUILDING ME UP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION’
One of Bryant’s students this day is Kathleen Dabney of West Melbourne. Dabney has early-stage Alzheimer’s, she says. She and close friend Diane Randolph of Melbourne have begun coming to the painting workshops.
“I look forward to it. I’d always wanted to learn how to paint. I wish I could do it every week,” Randolph says.
For Dabney, who’s “just started in this journey,” the workshops offer two distinct benefits. The first is that it pulls her out of the house and into a social setting with people traveling the same path she’s on. But just as important, “I love to see that I can do something like this.”
“Sometimes it’s difficult – I’m not an artist – but maybe it’s building me up in the right direction. Everything I do like this is helping slow this thing down.”
“Decide what artist you’re going to be,” Bryant tells the class. What she’s talking about is the decision to leave the sides of the canvas blank, or to paint a border color there, or to continue the scene.
Bryant has a preference. She continues the scene.
“I don’t like to see ends. I like to see continuing.”
Jan Bryant and her students – many of whom volunteer for Interpreting Art As You Wish – are exhibiting throughout October at Studios of Cocoa Beach, 165 Minutemen Causeway. For more, visit StudiosofCocoaBeach.org. To register for an Interpreting Art As You Wish workshop, please call 321.434.7625. To learn more about Health First’s Aging Services, visit HF.org/aging.
To learn more about how the Health First Foundation supports efforts like this as well as helping people in need get life-saving care, visit HF.org/give.