Students art helps Alzheimer’s patients

December 25, 2013
Fourth-grade students from Waynesburg Elementary School receive treats from the Golden Living Center in Waynesburg. The treats were a thank you for artwork given to patients on the Alzheimer’s wing at Golden Living each year. Standing, from left, Leah Coulter, Madison Staggers, Desiree Burns, RN supervisor in the Alzheimer’s unit, Meagn John, Natalie Yeager and Paige Redman. Seated is Ilene Richezza, the Alzheimer’s care director at Golden Living. - Tara Kinsell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

WAYNESBURG – Students in the Waynesburg Central Elementary School have spent more than five years learning about Alzheimer’s disease, raising money for its research and sharing artwork with patients of the Alzheimer’s wing at the Golden Living Center in Waynesburg. Staff members from the wing visited the fourth-grade classrooms at the elementary school this month to personally thank the young artists.

“The kids in the fourth grade have been doing artwork for our patients that helps them know what season it is,” said Ilene Richezza, the Alzheimer’s care director at Golden Living. “At the end of the school year they have artwork that keeps it going until school starts again in August.”

The artwork is part of the larger, “Forget-Me-Not,” program students in the elementary school have taken part in during the 2013-14 school year but it began several years ago as its own project.

Now-retired Waynesburg elementary teacher Sue Dugan said it started when a new social studies program, with a focus on service was introduced into the Central Greene School District. Dugan and her friend Nancy Riggle had long talked about the days when their daughters were in the Girl Scouts together and the social service projects they did. So, when Dugan was tasked with coming up with service project to go along with the curriculum she naturally discussed it with Riggle.

“I was working at Golden Living at the time in the Alzheimer’s Memory Care Unit. People who have Alzheimer’s, especially as they progress into the later stages have problems with time,” said Riggle. “We thought the artwork would be a really good way to tie in an intergenerational project.”

To get the art project started, Riggle visited the students in the third-grade classrooms at Waynesburg Elementary. She provided them with an introduction into Alzheimer’s Disease so they could understand what the artwork was for and who they were creating it for.

“So many people have it. We knew that some of the kids in my classes had a family member with Alzheimer’s,” said Dugan. Many times people struggle with how to explain what is happening to a child, so they simply don’t, said Dugan.

Riggle’s introduction put the disease onto a level that young children could easily grasp. Dugan said a visual aid of two car wash sponges, one with holes in it, was especially effective in getting across the pieces of an Alzheimer’s patients memory that are lost as the disease progresses.

“She showed them the sponge without the holes and said, ‘This is what your brain looks like.’ Then she showed them the one with the holes and said, ‘That’s where places in the brain aren’t there anymore,’” said Dugan. “She did a lot of hands-on stuff. Every year she read the book, “Grandma’s Cobwebs,” and all of the teachers would cry every year.”

“Grandma’s Cobwebs” and “The Graduation of Jake Moon” are books written on two different age levels that address living with someone who has Alzheimer’s disease. Riggle has read both to students in her continued work with the Alzheimer’s Association.

Six years into the program at Waynesburg Elementary School the artwork continues to flow. The torch has passed from teacher to teacher. It hit especially close to home for retired teacher Irene Jacobs, who took over from Dugan.

“My grandmother had Alzheimer’s. I was in my 20s but I still remember. A lot of the children knew a relative, a grandparent, aunt, uncle, someone that was going through this, so it was a nice fit for third grade,” Jacobs said. “My grandmother stayed in my parent’s home until she fell and broke her hip. She spent the last couple of years of her life in a nursing home. The project had special meaning for me, for my Bubba (Mary Matis).”

The work that the third grade teachers over the last six years have done to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s continues to expand. The mini-Alzheimer’s walk, held each year in the district, engages the elementary students to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Association.

Riggle said you can hear them discussing it as they walk around the track that circles the Raider Field of Pride. In just a few days this year the students raised $2,500 for Alzheimer’s research and education.

“When I am doing a program (on Alzheimer’s) I ask the kids to raise their hands if they knew someone with Alzheimer’s Disease and every time half of the hands go up. They are living with it and it is affecting them tremendously,” Riggle said.

Tara Kinsell started her career in journalism with the National Geographic Insider Magazine and the Gaithersburg Gazette Newspaper in Montgomery County, Md. Tara has written and photographed sports, features and news stories for the Herald Standard, Greene County Messenger and Albert Gallatin Weekly. She holds degrees in journalism and graphic design from Waynesburg College, now Waynesburg University, and the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, respectively.

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