Art student Kaydee Stratis sees her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease as an ocean, a changeable and always-looming threat to the treasured memories the two share.
White-capped waves played heavily into an illustration Stratis submitted to judges from the art and memory care worlds in a unique partnership between the Pennsylvania College of Art & Design in Lancaster and Country Meadows Retirement Communities.
Stratis’ illustration is among 20 on display at Manheim Township Public Library this month, part of an effort to help children understand and cope with dementia.
Country Meadows decided last fall to publish a children’s story and workbook on the subject, and officials turned to the college’s senior illustration students to design possible covers. The results were so compelling that the senior living community decided to turn the images into a traveling exhibit.
Professor Bob Hochgertel, chair of the college’s illustration department, provides his students opportunities to design for professional clients each semester. Past partnerships have included the Hershey Bears, the state Department of Agriculture and the Broadway Theatre of Pitman, New Jersey.
Students weren’t necessarily enthusiastic when they heard they would be creating an image about a senior citizens’ issue. But Hochgertel says they had a change of heart when Country Meadows provided the specifics and helped them understand how dementia can devastate relationships.
“When they saw how wide open the project really was, they began to get excited,” says Hochgertel. “They saw their own experiences with grandparents. Then they had an epiphany: You’re looking at someone’s memory.”
Senior Gabrielle Hoffman, of Hatfield, Montgomery County, was selected the winner for her graphic novel-like depiction of a grandmother playing superheroes with a granddaughter.
“The Unforgettable Adventures of Grandma’s Cape” tells the story of a child’s relationship with a grandparent and how it changes because of the “forgetting disease.” It also incorporates activities and tips on sharing time together, all appropriate for children ages 3-12.
Joel Kroft, executive director of memory support for Country Meadows, wrote the book and served on the selection panel. He said much of the art the students produced helped to undercut the stigma dementia carries, representing both inter-generational bonds “and the loss and challenges of the disease.”
“One of the things we absolutely have to figure out is how to bring this disease out into the light,” says Kroft. “How do we connect with everybody?”
Kelly Kuntz, a spokeswoman for Country Meadows, says the images were powerful enough to merit further use. After their time at the library, they will rotate through Country Meadows’ 12 Pennsylvania communities — home to more than 2,000 seniors with varying degrees of independence.
“Grandma’s Cape” will be distributed for free to resident families who need help talking about dementia and related illnesses, especially those whose children might be pulling away from beloved family members.
“For some kids, their grandparents are giant figures, larger than life creatures,” says Kroft. “As they age with dementia, that all goes away.”
One in three seniors will die with dementia. Two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients are women, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Country Meadows offers several other resources for families of dementia patients on its website, including book lists and a guide on making visits more successful. Kroft says having the book illustrated by students saved the company money, but also brought a new perspective to the project.
For students, says Hochgertel, the opportunity was about more than telling their own stories. Each now has exposure to a new type of client, a sample for their professional portfolio and a competition to include on their resume.
Stratis has also pushed back against the waves, making a lasting tribute to a grandmother whose existence won’t be swept away by the shifting sands of memory loss.