Dissecting Dementia course gives Purdue Health Sciences students means of building connections with, positively impacting lives of community residents through art

Morgan Lynne Barrette poses for a picture with her art partner in Westminster Village.

Purdue health sciences student Morgan Lynne Barrette poses with her Westminster Village art partner at their December art exhibition opening in West Lafayette.

Written by: Tim Brouk, tbrouk@purdue.edu

Advancing age poses one of the greatest risks of conditional development, so as the U.S. population continues to get older, Purdue University Health Sciences senior Alyx Harley and other future health practitioners will inevitably encounter more patients suffering from dementia illnesses. Dementia affects 55 million people on the planet, according to the World Health Organization.

A unique School of Health Sciences course debuted in the fall, granting students a personal window into the world of dementia as well as an opportunity to work directly with people struggling with its effects. Taught by clinical assistant professor Lisa Hilliard in partnership with life experience manager Rachel Witt at Westminster Village, a retirement community in West Lafayette, HSCI 49000DD (Dissecting Dementia) guided 24 undergraduates on their journey to understand the neurodegenerative effects of such diseases on the brain and their devastating impact on connectedness and personhood.

Harley, an inaugural student in this course, has worked as a patient care assistant at Franciscan Health East hospital in Lafayette for the last three years. There, she has interacted with numerous patients, some of whom suffered from dementia. To better care for these patients as well as those she plans to support in her career as a physician assistant in the future, Harley decided to enroll in Dissecting Dementia last fall. Following foundational lessons the first few weeks, Harley and her classmates spent every Monday conversing, engaging and partnering with their residents as they created expressive abstract art.

“Working in health care and being out in the health care field will involve having to support these types of individuals in their journey,” Hilliard said. “Approaching these patients with a little more insight, could be very impactful for both their short- and long-term outcomes.”

Harley further shared how involvement in the course enhanced her communication skills.

“Rephrasing; showing instead of telling; and being patient, supportive as they plan their responses are valuable alternative approaches.” Harley added. “Our job as health care providers and students taking this class was to be really engaged with the residents and be there for them because sometimes, they feel like they aren’t the same as they used to be, which is a really hard reality to come to.”

The weekly art projects were developed with Opening Minds through Art (OMA), an intergenerational art program designed to reveal the imagination and strengths those suffering from dementia still possess. Dissecting Dementia culminated in an exhibit showcasing residents’ artistic works at Westminster Village. The show was open to the public and the pieces will remain on display until May when the new exhibition for the spring term goes on display.

A student poses for a picture with a resident of Westminster Village.

Purdue health sciences students bonded with their art partners, so much that some signed up to be volunteers and Westminster Village.

Stop the stigma

Through these weekly sessions, Harley and her partner developed a meaningful bond. Working on various projects afforded them time to talk, connect and get to know one other. This informed one of Harley’s main takeaways: Those with dementia should be supported rather than stigmatized.

“Now that class is over, it really has changed my perspective,” Harley said. “I think a lot of people have a stigma around dementia — being nervous, not knowing what to say or how to handle certain situations. It’s really about just being supportive, caring and willing to see them through a new lens. 

“We always talked about how they are a person with dementia. The dementia doesn’t define who they are. They’re still the same person with much to offer.”

Maxel Simmel, another Health Sciences senior enrolled in the fall class, said he learned a lot more about dementia by interacting with his art partner. While millions suffer from it, dementia is still misunderstood by the public, he believed.

“I now see the importance of spreading awareness of dementia,” Simmel continued. “The direct exposure I got really showed I was not quite as comfortable as I am now interacting with those living with dementia. But now I feel I am able to develop an emotional connection with them, and I feel as though the artists and our community would benefit from others taking this course.”

Class continuing

The interest in Hilliard’s class continued into 2024, with the spring semester almost filling before the end of the fall. Hilliard reflected on the success of the course she created. Like many, Hilliard has had family members with dementia diagnoses. She wanted health sciences students to not only learn about the causes, warning signs and impacts the collection of diseases under the dementia umbrella have on the brain but also their diversity of expression by interacting with real people living with these conditions.

“There’s a lot of variability not just between individuals but even day to day with hidden illness like those encapsulated under dementia,” Hilliard said. “In addition, since dementia impacts the human supercomputer — the brain, its effects extend beyond just those commonly thought of, like memory, demeanor and movement. Physiological processes like digestion are also affected, which makes it sometimes very difficult for those around them to understand the fluctuations from day to day, even moment to moment, seen in their loved ones.”

In the classroom, students studied the topography of the brain and how changes in certain areas coincide with the presentation of different forms of dementia. They also learned how to best interact with future patients or their own family members who may suffer from dementia, concentrating on interpersonal skills and interpreting nonverbal cues.

Hilliard explained that just because an individual struggles to communicate their desires and interests, it doesn’t mean they should be discounted or treated as if they are children. The vibrant person they knew is still in there, so inclusion in intimate family gatherings and low-stress, engaging activities that stimulate cognition should still occur as frequently as tolerated.

New Westminster volunteers, staff

Westminster afforded students and residents a comfortable atmosphere in which to bond and the training and materials needed to create art. Witt guided the OMA art projects linked to the Dissecting Dementia course and noticed connections between students and her residents right away.

“It really benefits both the student and the resident in profound ways,” Witt said. “The two people sit together and work through the process together and, in doing that, have great conversation, get to know one another and understand the perspective of another. It really enriches lives on both sides of the equation. It’s remarkable.”

Witt added that she was impressed with the Health Sciences students’ dedication and looks forward to continuing the collaboration. Students were engaged and ready to gain real experience interacting with the residents. As the weeks passed, several students signed up for volunteer opportunities, and one applied for — and received — a part-time job with Westminster, further proving the impact of the course.

As Harley enters her final semester as a Health Sciences undergraduate, Dissecting Dementia ranks as a phenomenal experience.

“I felt so proud of our work and how far we’d come and just to give (my resident) that outlet each week,” Harley said. “But also, she gave me an outlet as a student and made me really feel like I was working toward a goal and I was really impacting someone’s life, which is what made me want to go into health care in the first place.”