Making Connections through Art

Allison Radcliffe guides a Park Place of Elmhurst resident as the woman paints a watercolor picture.

Allison Radcliffe, founder of Cognitive Art Connections, uses watercolor painting to enhance the lives of Park Place residents.

Residents at Park Place of Elmhurst are picking up a paintbrush for the first time in years, or perhaps for the first time in their lives, thanks to an innovative watercolor art program that combines creativity and evidence-based practice to improve their well-being and cognition.

The group is facilitated by Allison Radcliffe, founder of Cognitive Art Connections. Allison first discovered the positive impact that art can have on the brain when she began volunteering with a similar program through the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, following her mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease. When she and her family relocated from Denver to Chicago, Allison discovered a need for art programs at places like Park Place of Elmhurst and began offering her expertise.

Spending time unleashing their inner creativity is beneficial to all residents, especially those in Park Place’s Gilead Memory Care program. “Our number one goal is to have fun, relax, and just be together,” Allison says. “I’m able to watch people go from an agitated or less focused state to a relaxed state.”

Allison recalls one Memory Care resident she works with who used to be an artist in her younger days: “I think it frustrates her that she can’t get things down on paper like she wants to, so she gets very upset when we start. I’ll just touch her hand and say, ‘I’m just so glad you’re here today, I like getting to spend time with you.’ And I can see her let her guard down a bit and the frustration decrease. And then she’ll start to sketch.”

A Park Place of Elmhurst resident works on a watercolor painting.

Park Place of Elmhurst residents find that creating with watercolors helps foster mental well-being, especially for residents in the Memory Care program.

Her specialized training through the Alzheimer’s Association helped Allison learn to modify parts of her class – such as using blue painters tape around the edges of the watercolor paper to help with vision difficulties, or selecting inspiration photos that can be broken down into shapes. She also uses rhythm and song along with hand motions to motivate residents who have diminished functional abilities. “What’s most important is that I don’t try to micromanage and start doing it for them,” she says, stressing that “we’re not here to paint something that will sell for a million dollars, we’re here to have fun.”

Family members also enjoy participating in the class, often scheduling their visits so they can paint side-by-side with their loved one. “It’s a really great, non-stressful way to be together,” Allison observes. “You don’t have to remember or worry about anything, except for what’s going on right there. It helps people just be in the moment.”

Memory Care residents aren’t the only ones who benefit from the program. Classes are also held on a regular basis for Independent Living and Assisted Living residents, who find joy in engaging in the creative process. “One lady said to me at the end of a class, ‘You know, I came in here really worried about all my problems today. And this made me so happy, and I’m not stressed out anymore,’” Allison recalls. “She was so proud and had a big smile on her face. That just spoke for itself.”

“It’s just about bringing that calm, relaxation and peace to people,” she says. “And pride. A sense of pride.”