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Project Growing Together by Dr. Michelle Olson

Art, nature program seeks to provide a meaningful, creative outlet for those living with dementia and the community.
Featured Image: Artworks are from the Project Growing Together garden.
Artworks are from the Project Growing Together garden.

Tell us what Project Growing Together is all about! 

Project Growing Together came to be in an effort to help end ageism, ableism, and stigmas that so commonly surround people living with dementia. In its second year, the program brings people of all ages and abilities together in a dementia-inclusive garden/art gallery. This colorful, welcoming space sits on Vassar College’s Ecological Preserve and is utilized by people in the community and 4 senior living communities.

The garden is planned and tended by volunteers and Vassar College interns, while our senior living community partners start seeds indoors. When the vegetables are ready for harvest, we pick them and deliver them back to these communities to then use in cooking programs or summer salads. Residents also create artwork that hangs in the gardens; volunteers will visit communities to work on art and gardening projects as well. 

People who are living with dementia are often marginalized, stigmatized and segregated from other people and the natural world. We were founded to reconnect people with one another through nature and the expressive arts! Art has a profound way of expressing thoughts, feelings and memories–this is especially true when words and language fail us. 

What has inspired you to grapple with dementia? 

For 25 years, I have worked in senior living as an art therapist specifically with people who are living with dementia. I am also a social gerontologist and have been troubled by how people living with dementia are often segregated from the rest of society. From this experience, programs like Project Growing Together sprouted! This dementia-inclusive and intergenerational program is developed by my not-for-profit, charitable organization, Evergreen Minds, Inc. The program demonstrates that people living with dementia can be even more open to creative expression and can continue to live fulfilling and joyful lives!

How has working on dementia-related art changed you?

I am continually learning from my clients, colleagues, and friends who are living with dementia. I find my own art is inspired by spontaneity, curiosity, and the ability to be present in the moment, my capacity for which is directly a result of being close to people who are living with dementia. I find that art (and nature) can offer many metaphors if we are paying attention and slow down. Expressive arts and art therapy can offer people with dementia alternative and powerful ways of expressing their emotions, thoughts, and memories. This is particularly true when traditional verbal communication may be challenging.

How has Project Growing Together been received? 

We have had very positive responses from people living with dementia, their care partners, and our high school volunteers and Vassar College interns and faculty. We have documented people’s experiences in this project and how their perceptions about aging and dementia have changed and shown that bringing people together through meaningful and creative opportunities is good for our health and quality of life! We also found that our older adult volunteers felt more positive and hopeful toward the younger generations.

This work is dedicated to: Our garden is open to all who wish to be a part of it. We do pay special tribute to two communities who created artwork that hangs in the garden. We also have painted stones which are placed to honor and remember loved ones who have/had dementia.

Find more from Dr. Michelle Olson and Evergreen Minds Inc. on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

What is a Spotlight?

The Dementia Arts Spotlight promotes visual and performing artists who are grappling with dementia through original work or innovative arts programs. The Spotlight—in a Q&A format where artists describe the details and significance of their work or program—connects each artist to the Dementia Spring community. Find examples of prior Dementia Arts Spotlights here. Know of an artist whose work should be Spotlighted? Send them this link!

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