Great River Care Center therapies help combat dementia

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McGregor’s Great River Care Center offers art and music therapies to its residents as a way to help combat dementia. One art form residents have explored is painting. (Submitted photos)

“I love the look on their faces, the look of happiness as the painting progresses,” stated artist Lynda Coon, who teaches the painting classes. “They’re almost in awe because they didn’t think they could do it. It gave them a boost in self-esteem.”

Great River Care Center residents also enjoy chalk drawing.

“You have to use your brain and you have to think in order to paint, to sculpt and to sing,” explained activity director Debbie Johnson. “It’s all a good use of your mind.”

Great River Care Center was recently awarded the Legacy to Care Award for its therapy offerings. Pictured are activity director Debbie Johnson and administrator Deanna Kahler.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

McGregor’s Great River Care Center is following the adage “if you don’t use it, you lose it,” in offering art and music therapies to its residents as a way to help combat dementia.

“You have to use your brain and you have to think in order to paint, to sculpt and to sing,” explained activity director Debbie Johnson. “It’s all a good use of your mind.”

The facility first began offering music therapy in August, after Johnson was inspired by the documentary “Alive Inside,” which she said talks about music’s ability to reach people. For those battling dementia, music is often one of the last things to leave, Johnson noted. A lover of music, she wanted to give it a try.

“I was very interested in trying to reach more people with advanced dementia,” she said, “because sometimes finding ways to reach them is a struggle.”

For the therapy program, the care center purchased three iPods, along with separate sets of headphones for each participant. Staff selected residents who they felt would benefit the most from the therapy. With the help of CDs and iTunes, personalized playlists were then developed for the participants, taking into account their favorite songs and artists.

Johnson said the therapy has been fruitful, with residents showing neat responses, like opening their eyes wide and smiling, tapping their feet and relaxing the muscles in their arms. 

One night, while Johnson was staying late, she said she heard a noise from one of the residents with advanced dementia who does not talk or often respond. Reaching her was one of the main reasons Johnson started the program, she said.

“She was trying to sing,” Johnson explained. “It was really special. You can tell that it’s making a difference in her quality of life.”

Johnson also spoke of another participant named Irene, who’s since passed away. A big Dean Martin fan, her favorite song was “Good Night Irene.” Johnson said, as Irene neared the end, they played music for her.

“Her daughter remarked on how much more comfortable she was,” Johnson said. “‘Good Night Irene’ was playing when she passed. How nice it was to have that playing. It made the end process more comfortable for her and her family.”

Johnson said Great River Care Center residents also enjoy other forms of music through church services and performances by visiting groups. A facility choir is being formed, as well, she said.

“A lot of people sang in their church choir and sang with their kids. There’s no reason they can’t continue that now,” she said, noting that music is also an effective tool to get people out of their shells and interacting with others.

Great River Care Center expanded its therapy offerings in November, with the addition of art therapy, allowing residents to create their own masterpieces.

One form of expression residents have utilized is painting, offered by artist Lynda Coon through her “Yes, I Can Paint!” class. Coon offers kids classes as well as the popular painting parties, where groups get together for several hours to all paint the same image.

“I tell people what to do step-by-step, and they have a fun time,” said Coon, who develops the painting others copy at the parties. She creates the painting based on the participants’ interests and also makes sure it’s easy enough to complete in the allotted amount of time.

So far, Coon has offered two classes like this at the Great River Care Center, one with 17 participants and the other with 15. She said painting was new for most people, and they were hesitant at first, but soon enjoyed themselves and were proud of what they created.

“I love the look on their faces, the look of happiness as the painting progresses,” Coon stated. “They’re almost in awe because they didn’t think they could do it. It gave them a boost in self-esteem.”

Coon said painting also helps participants bond with others and offers a form of relaxation.

Johnson agreed, noting, “If you give yourself a second to step outside of yourself and put everything else behind you, you can relax and make something beautiful. It’s a nice treat for them.”

Johnson said Great River Care Center hopes to offer Coon’s classes every other month, or at least quarterly. They also provide other art opportunities, including chalk drawing and sculpting with air dry clay. Residents have also taken advantage of the adult coloring book fad, coloring in groups every Monday afternoon.

“They all sit around and color together,” Johnson said. “It’s helped with some residents who have behaviors.”

In addition to the music and art therapies, the care center also began offering aromatherapy to its residents in October. Through an essential oil diffuser and lavender essential oil, aromatherapy has helped residents who experience restlessness to better relax.

Johnson said Great River Care Center would like to continue this therapy by purchasing more diffusers and essential oils. They’re hoping to grow their music therapy program by purchasing additional iPods and iTunes music cards. Funds will also be needed to continue offering art programming.

Great River Care Center will receive some help with this, as the facility was recently awarded the Legacy to Care Award for its therapy offerings. The award was established to honor the dedication and vision of Don Chensvold and Marlen Lacy of Health Care of Iowa.

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