Marisa Henrickson
Caregiver uses art and photography for therapy

Marissa Henrickson, recreation specialist at the Washington County Health Center in Arden, keeps the colorful balloon in play for residents of the Alzheimer's unit. Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter
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Marisa Henrickson uses her camera lens and art background in an attempt to invigorate the minds of people with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.

She doesn't believe they can't learn new things, so she tries to spark their imagination through music, vintage photos, trivia and current events during her daily therapy sessions with residents at the Washington County Health Center in Chartiers Township.

“I want (people) to see it's not all gloom and doom,” Henrickson said. “They do have a good time. They are funny. They keep me in line.”

In a morning therapy session earlier this month, she started with a patriotic song playing on a portable stereo to get the dozen or so residents involved. Henrickson, known as “teacher” by many of the residents, waves her arms almost as though she's conducting and eventually uses tissues to keep their attention.

“It's a very big part of their therapy,” Henrickson said of the tissues she waves and hands out to the residents to get them involved. “They respond to it and they really try.”

Henrickson, a recreation specialist and dementia practitioner at the health center for the past decade, runs a photography studio out of her North Strabane Township home. She decided years ago that her background in art education and psychology could be an asset to help bring a wide range of activities to people with Alzheimer's and dementia.

She changes the activities every 20 minutes during the 90-minute sessions and repeats them day after day to keep the residents interested and involved. One of her favorite activities is having those in her groups dress up in vintage clothes, wear feather boas or top hats and pose for photos she takes to show off their personalities.

Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Marissa Henrickson, right, Recreation Specialist with the Washington County Health Center in Arden, talks with Erma Martello, 87, in the Alzheimers unit in the Washington County Health Center in Arden.
“They are amazing with what they can learn. I know they have a stigma about them that they can't learn anymore,” Henrickson said. “It's not true.”

They give her feedback on the activities they like and the ones they'd prefer to be shelved. Even as they decline in health, Henrickson takes pride in the small steps of remembering a song or tapping their feet to the beat.

She's hopeful that even if researchers don't find a “miracle pill” or cure for Alzheimer's, they will find ways to improve the quality of a person's life. Until then, Henrickson said she'll continue working each day to find ways to help and challenge them.

“Live in their moment,” Henrickson said of the advice she gives to relatives who are upset by watching their loved ones regress. “Be happy with them wherever it is they are. That makes a big difference.”