When Christopher Burright was a boy, doodling and drawing pictures, his grandmother — a professional artist — would give him little tips: “Try this,” she’d say, “or that.”
She’d remind him of how important the details are, and of drawing “what you see; not what you think you see.”
“It was always something easy for me to talk to her about as a kid,” Burright recalled.
Unlike his grandmother, Burright never trained as an artist; he was good at it, but his interests lay elsewhere. He ended up studying psychology at UC Davis, graduating with a bachelor’s degree earlier this year.
But a couple of years ago, when his grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, it got Burright thinking about the connection between art and memory — about how drawing out the little details might help draw out a long-forgotten memory.
And knowing his grandmother complained of having few activities to keep her busy at her retirement home in Bakersfield, Burright reached out to Davis-area retirement homes, offering to teach a drawing class to residents.
One of the people he took his idea to was Deborah Hiscox, activities director at the University Retirement Community. He proposed teaching a weekly class aimed at assisting with memory.
“She was immediately receptive,” Burright recalled. “And she gave me a lot of license to structure the class how I wanted.”
That was two years ago, and since then, Burright has graduated from UCD with his psychology degree and taken a job with the UC Davis Sleep Lab. But once a week, he still returns to URC to draw with residents.
Every Monday, he arrives with a drawing in mind — a bicycle, or a holiday scene, a jack-o-lantern for Halloween. And while he originally had participants draw their own pictures along with him, Burright found many residents were reluctant to do so or became frustrated when the pictures didn’t turn out as they’d expected.
So now he draws a picture on an easel in front of the group, asking questions to elicit the details for him to draw.
“I start with a broad idea,” he said, “(like) a baseball game. Then we slowly try to remember the finer details of our topic — what do baseball uniforms look like? Who are some famous baseball players?”
He asks them questions: Did you ever play baseball? How did you hold the bat? What does that tell you about the shape of the bat?
It helps that after two years, Burright has come to know participants well enough that he can prompt them, asking questions specific to the city they grew up in, the job they used to have.
“Someone who said they didn’t remember anything ends up remembering so much,” Burright said. “In just an hour, they’ll remember so much stuff.”
Last Monday, he was drawing a Christmas scene.
“Does anyone know what Christmas is?” Burright asked the half-dozen residents present.
He received a few answers — “celebrating the birth of Jesus”; “giving gifts to people we love.”
“Let’s see if we can get more specific details,” Burright then said.
And over the course of the next hour, he would slowly but steadily draw out those details.
“He has the patience of Job,” said Jean Nickell, assisted living manager at URC. “It’s wonderful.”
Indeed, Burright would re-word his questions, tailor them to each participant, sometimes scrap them altogether if they weren’t eliciting responses and work tirelessly to evoke a memory.
He began to draw a cabin, asking what should go inside it, prompting, giving hints.
“A fireplace,” said one elderly woman.
“A Christmas tree,” said another. “Alongside the wall.”
And slowly, with Burright asking questions and drawing, the words would come — ornaments, wreaths, gifts — and, sometimes, the memories: a mother who celebrated her birthday on Christmas. Often when one person answered a question, others would nod in recognition.
As the hour drew to a close, and the picture grew complete, Burright asked if there was anything missing from the picture.
“Laughter,” someone said.
Yes, said Burright, laughter and people.
“This program had been very successful,” he said afterward. “It’s been more helpful than I thought it would be.”
And he believes he’s hit on something that can benefit many people who have loved ones with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Speaking of his father’s visits to his grandmother, Burright noted that, “We take it for granted, being able to have a conversation with our parent.”
He hopes that people can try this approach — asking questions in a different way, trying to elicit details that just may evoke shared memories.
It’s given him something new to talk about with his grandmother, whom he last saw during a Thanksgiving visit.
“It’s been really nice for me,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d get as much out of it as I have.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at email@example.com or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy