Palette able
Painting classes help restore color to the lives of memory-impaired seniors


July 10, 2004

RONI GALGANO / Union-Tribune
Ninety-year-old Ruth Goldfarb (right) received pointers and encouragement from Linda Bounds during an art lesson while Goldfarb's son, Stephen, looked on.
Ena Cooper loved to paint, write, garden and play the piano. At family gatherings, she was a magnet.

But Cooper slowly began fading away, leaving an almost silent shell.

The tide of Cooper's long descent into dementia turned a year ago when her daughter, Shoshanah Tov, found an art class for Alzheimer's patients called Leaps & Bounds. Despite her mother's feeble protestations, Tov enrolled her in the class, taught by volunteer Linda Bounds.

"She hadn't picked up a paintbrush in years," Tov said of her mother. "Everything had gone away by the time we got to Linda."

When Cooper first met Bounds, she avoided eye contact and stared out the window. When Bounds asked her if she wanted to paint, Cooper mumbled, "I don't know," her daughter remembered.

Within a couple of sessions, Bounds, with her enthusiastic encouragement, had Cooper painting like an impressionist master, daubing a little yellow ochre here, a little red cadmium there. Over the months, colorful oil paintings came to life. And to a degree, so did Cooper.

"She was improving, which is a crazy thing to say with Alzheimer's," said Tov, noting that her mother was more talkative than she had been in years. "She was more aware. She had a sense of humor again. You could see more bits of herself."

RONI GALGANO / Union-Tribune
At Linda Bounds' East Village art studio, several paintings in progress by Leaps & Bounds students rest on easels between class days.
On days when Bounds asked Cooper if she was too tired to paint, the reply came firmly, "No, no. I don't want to stop."

The idea for Leaps & Bounds was born in 2000, the year Bounds began painting a new self-portrait. She quit her 15-year career as a high school guidance counselor and went through a divorce she never saw coming. This mother of two 20-something children faced a clean canvas.

She decided to teach oil painting. There were watercolor and pastel classes around town, but nobody seemed to be teaching oil painting. Bounds knew she could fill the void with her art background that spanned more than 25 years.

After talking with a friend who is a social worker at an adult rehabilitation center in East County, Bounds decided to teach seniors. She found herself saying, "Let me see if I can make these people's lives a little bit better."

She bought her own supplies and donated her time. Four years later, Bounds still donates her time, but the assisted living facilities pay for supplies.

Bounds teaches memory-impaired seniors at several places around the county, including assisted living centers in Carlsbad, La Jolla and Rancho Peñasquitos. In addition to her volunteer work, Bounds has paying clients – people with disabilities, troubled youth and seniors – at her art studio in East Village.

Still life
Painting has worked wonders for Marcia Buchalter's 91-year-old mother, Charlotte.

"When you let someone stagnate, when you let them sit around with not much to do, they spiral down very, very, very quickly," Marcia Buchalter said. "It (Leaps & Bounds) gives my mother a way to express herself. She doesn't have that vacant look in her eyes. She is focused and concentrating. She becomes very alive."

And her mother adores Bounds, Buchalter said. "She would do anything for her. Linda connects with her on a level I don't understand."

Watching Bounds paint with 10 women at The Arbors Assisted Living center in Rancho Peñasquitos, it is easy to see how she inspires her students to get into the spirit of Monet or Gauguin, even on days when they are tired or don't feel well.

Bounds held up a canvas with yellow and blue triangular splotches and asked her students to guess what the painting would be in the end. "A mountain," one woman offered from her wheelchair. "A pyramid," another woman suggested.

The splotches were the beginning of a village scene from a work by Monet, Bounds explained as she displayed a color photograph of the completed work. The women will take turns adding to the painting for two or three months, referring to the picture for guidance.

Two by two, they came to the canvas, Bounds crouched between them to offer instruction and praise.

"Tell your brain to go from here to here," she told Lilli Collins as Collins hesitantly placed her brush midair in front of the canvas.

"Oh, it's going to get wilder before it gets better," Bounds said to the class. She often has to prod her students to put brush to canvas, especially those who are new to the class and new to painting.

"There is no such thing as a mistake," Bounds said, reciting her familiar mantra. "I'm going to show you that not only can you not make a mistake, you will use it to your advantage."

Old masters
Ninety-year-old Ruth Goldfarb studied art at the New York Academy of Design and modeled for other artists in the 1930s. But during the past 15 years, as the demands of caring for her ailing husband and her own failing health took precedence, her art fell by the wayside. Her three children noted the depression, health problems and lack of interest in daily activities.

This year, Goldfarb began art classes at the Jacob Health Care Center in East San Diego where she lives. Recently, at Leaps & Bounds' first public exhibition at Bounds' downtown studio, nearly a dozen of her paintings were on display. While much of their time is spent copying the works of famous painters, some of Bounds' students create original pieces of art.

Stephen Goldfarb, Ruth's son and a clinical psychologist, said Leaps & Bounds gives his mother something meaningful to look forward to.

"Her thoughts often had to do with her imminent passing away and that her life was basically in the past and over for her," he said.

Bounds changed all that.

"I see a brightening of her outlook and a real genuine interest in the work she is doing," he said of his mother.

She doesn't remember what happens from session to session, he said, but she always remembers Bounds and speaks glowingly of her technique.

"(Bounds') obvious love for the people she works with is really what creates the atmosphere that allows all this to work," Goldfarb said. "That is so critically important for this patient population."

Bounds forms deep attachments with her students, calling them her children, her parents, her family all rolled into one. Over the years, she has had to cope with many deaths.

"When I got into this, it didn't occur to me that people were going to die on me. I was just going to go keep people company," Bounds said.

"I've said a lot of goodbyes. But I don't feel they ever leave me. I feel my room is full. They are all here, cheering me on. I am very grateful."

Ena Cooper passed away in May, six days shy of her 88th birthday. She had a stroke while painting in Bounds' class and died four days later.

"The end could have been so horrible, but honestly, it wasn't horrible," Shoshanah Tov said, reflecting on her mother's last year of life. "Finding Linda just made all the difference. Linda gave her so much love."

Caroline Dipping is a Union-Tribune news assistant.

© Copyright 2004 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.