By Starrla Cray
WATERTOWN, MN This Christmas season, folks at Elim Rehab and Nursing Home in Watertown are experiencing wonder and hope through a remarkable program called Art Without Boundaries.
“I was amazed, and I think the residents themselves were too,” Elim Home activities director Roxi Wendlandt said of the initial MnemeTherapy sessions.
In MnemeTherapy (pronounced “nemma”), clients work with a certified therapist for 30 minutes, utilizing a strategic combination of brain-stimulating techniques such as painting, singing, movement, storytelling, and the power of praise.
“We have had absolutely amazing things happen with this,” Art Without Boundaries founder Noell Hammer said. “About three years ago, I was working with a gentleman who’d had a stroke. Ever since his stroke, his vision had been upside down. Halfway through his session, he suddenly exclaimed, ‘My vision just turned right-side up!’”
Hammer recalled another instance in which one of her 24 MnemeTherapists was in a session with a deaf client.
“She was writing notes to him so he could understand her, and after awhile, she noticed that he was responding to things she was saying,” Hammer said.
According to Hammer, the man most likely suffered from agnosia, which is a loss of ability to recognize certain things, such as sounds or smells, even though the specific sense is not defective.
The condition is usually associated with a brain injury or neurological illness, and MnemeTherapy may have triggered improvement in that area of the brain.
Before she invented MnemeTherapy, Hammer had been doing art lessons with Alzheimer’s patients.
“I started doing things to make it easier for them,” she said, such as talking through the steps, demonstrating a brush stroke, or providing expertise in composition and color.
After awhile, Hammer couldn’t help but notice that patients were more responsive and alert, and took a greater interest in daily activities.
“I decided to figure out why this was happening,” she said, and as a result, MnemeTherapy was born.
The name MnemeTherapy comes from Mnemosyne (short name Mneme), the Greek goddess of memory, and the word mnemonic (memory tool).
The paintings created during the MnemeTherapy sessions are important, but they’re not the main focus, according to Hammer.
“It’s not about the painting,” she said. “It’s about doing the painting. We use the painting process to initiate sustained, attentive focus.”
MnemeTherapy is not to be confused with art therapy.
“Art therapy is a psychological process. It talks about feelings,” Hammer said. “We don’t do any of that.”
If anything, Hammer said her process could be referred to as “brain therapy.”
“There isn’t any other therapy like it out there,” she said.
It utilizes sustained, attentive focus to stimulate neuroplasticity (cortical re-mapping) in the brain. The idea is that the brain can reorganize itself and form new neural connections that the brain is “plastic” and “shapeable.”
“The brain is much more complicated than any of us understand,” Hammer said.
Mute clients who have been told by doctors and speech therapists that they won’t be able to speak again have been able to tell their spouses they love them after one session.
Others have noticed decreased stiffness and the ability to walk easier. Many make better eye contact and seem more aware of their surroundings.
Even combative clients have been influenced, going from biting and scratching to smiling and laughing.
“It’s a wonderful program,” Wendlandt said.
Although there have been numerous life-changing results documented, Hammer is quick to point out that one 30-minute MnemeTherapy session doesn’t fix every problem.
“Our goal is a rewarding experience,” she said. “Some just have a really good time.”
Some people who experience change notice it immediately, while others take repeated sessions.
Hammer and her certified therapists have worked with clients who are blind, disoriented, depressed, autistic, and affected by an assortment of other conditions.
“Our criteria is ‘willing to try,’” Hammer said.
Many clients are reluctant at first, but soon develop a great interest in the sessions.
“When they start, some of them say, ‘I can’t paint,’” Wendlandt said. “Then, afterwards, when you look at the paintings, it’s like, ‘wow.’”
So far, residents’ progress at Elim Home has been promising.
“Any time you get a reaction even if it’s just a smile that’s a great accomplishment,” Wendlandt said. “That’s what we live for in the activities department.”
Fourteen men and women at Elim Home have participated in the program with certified therapist Susan Volden.
“My goal is to bring her back monthly,” Wendlandt said.
In order to raise money for this program, Elim Home is selling calendars featuring residents’ full-color MnemeTherapy paintings.
Calendars are available at Elim Home and at the Watertown Pharmacy for $10 each.
An auction for the original paintings is also taking place at Elim Home. Final bidding will be Wednesday, Dec. 15 during Elim Home’s Christmas open house.
To learn more about Elim Home, go to www.elimcare.org or call (952) 955-2691.