The ART of healing
Following a dream has become a give-and-take reality for instructor and her students


San Diego, Calif.:  Jul 8, 2001.  pg. E.1

It's a bright Monday morning and Mary Lou Aldridich is having a great day. This is no small thing, because many of her days are dark as she tries to squint through a thick Alzheimer's haze.

Today the 83-year-old's eyes twinkle like stars above the landscape she's painted and she almost sings aloud.

"It's so fun I can feel the earth. It's just the way I feel," Aldridich says, smiling. Her art instructor, Linda Bounds, quickly joins in:

"Great! Go with it!"

Aldridich peers through her hand to narrow her focus on the canvas.

"Keep the line going. Don't stop," Bounds encourages.

"Yes. Yes. I see it. Yes," Aldridich says, her voice now as sure and firm as her grip on the brush. Both women seem to be holding their breath until the brush stops.

When it does, Aldridich relaxes and reaches up to take Bounds' hand that's resting on her shoulder.

"Thank you for understanding and being with me," Aldridich says. "I know you know how much this means to me, but I wanted to tell you. You're like an angel to me."

This angel is a former guidance counselor at Lakeside's El Capitan High School who, with her kids grown and her marriage ended, decided to devote herself to a lifelong dream of being an artist and using her art to heal.

In this past leap-of-faith year, Bounds has started art programs at two El Cajon residential facilities and formed a nonprofit organization, L.E.A.P.S. and Bounds (Lovingly-Energetic Artistic Programs for Seniors). L.E.A.P.S. will receive its first grant this week when Performa, a Cleveland, Ohio, corporation, meets in San Diego.

"Here I had been so sad for myself," she says. "When I walked into the physical pain of those individuals (at a senior facility) I realized I had found my venue," she said.

"If ever I could help heal their lives, it would be healing for me as well."

Room to dream

Bounds' empathy for her students may come from her own feeling of living in a haze for too long. Until the past year, her life was too busy to do more than notice a nagging sense of loss.

"I was the perfect wife, putting everything before myself," says the Chula Vista native. "It was the worst thing for my marriage, for my children and above all myself."

After the divorce, she was counseled by family and friends to invest her half of the sale of her Pine Valley home in the security of another house. But security wasn't what she had in mind. Living and supporting herself as an artist was a fantasy that she could now almost touch. Content to live in a trailer, she leased a small art studio in downtown San Diego.

This room of her own made her feel so good, she would just sit on the floor and "smell the air."

"I started dreaming for the first time. The first time in a long time about what I was going to be," Bounds says.

That dream always came back to helping seniors, and when she visited SunBridge Care and Rehabilitation in El Cajon, she was overwhelmed at the sight of so many older people in wheelchairs. She also was surprised to find younger disabled people there. She knew she wanted to help.

"I left in the car and cried," she says. "I was happy and sad at the same time."

She began volunteering to teach painting classes at SunBridge and later Parkside Special Care Center, funding all painting supplies out of her own pocket. When the classes started a year ago, none of the students knew each other. Now the new friends joke and laugh together while showing encouragement and concern for each other.

"They could barely give me a name for their favorite color when we first started," Bounds says. Neither could they answer any creative questions about food or music. They were at a loss for words. Now they talk about those things all the time.

No mistakes

At 35, Bridget Payne, who has spina bifida, is one of the younger members at the center. She has had, by her own admission, an understandably negative attitude most of her life.

Activities director Minnie Groel says Payne used to mostly watch TV or listen to music or write in her room. Her health was up and down and she stopped getting out of bed, at least until last spring when Bounds arrived.

The art teacher set up a special bedside table easel for Payne and repeated her often-heard mantra: "You cannot make a mistake."

"That opened doors for me, helping express myself more," Payne says. "I could get my aggressions on canvas. Bring out my emotions. I have a better positive attitude; I'm letting go of the past."

When a six-month pilot program Bounds developed was finished, the seven-member class had its first show, complete with artists reception.

"It was so emotional," Payne says. "One woman absolutely lost it. She was in tears. Seeing her reaction, seeing her emotionally charged made me emotionally charged. It was quite overwhelming."

Groel credits Bounds with bringing out the creativity in people, even those who have never done art.

"She gives herself 100 percent," says Groel. "And she's very patient, and that's not always easy."

Now in the second phase of the program, Payne has branched out from painting in a primitive "Grandma Moses" fashion to mastering a colorful Impressionistic style.

When Bounds pulls Payne's wheelchair back to get a better view of her work, teacher and student wordlessly reach for each other's hands at the very sight.

"Without Linda I would have forgotten about art," Payne says. "There's another world out there. She brought us that world."

New challenges

It's different at Parkside Special Care Center, which specializes in residents with dementia due to Alzheimer's disease. But the power of art has proved just as potent.

"Their good/bad days really fluctuate," says Traci Gandy, who worked with Bounds at SunBridge and brought her to Parkside when she became director of residents and family services there.

"It's great when they're having a good day to be doing what they like to do best. They're happier if nothing else.

"With these experiences they are able to recall something that is second nature to them. It's one less frustration, something they can connect with."

Bounds is learning new skills herself teaching at the two diverse centers. She has hooked up with the Alzheimer's Association's art therapy program, "Memories in the Making," and is teaching one of its classes at Parkside.

Early in the disease it's hard making a connection when people feel they're losing connection, according to Joni Bosky, program coordinator of "Memories in the Making."

"Art is therapy," Bosky says. "It taps into the same qualities of the heart and emotions, getting ourselves out on paper in a tangible way."

On her bad days, Mary Lou Aldridich's doesn't know a landscape from a smudge on a canvas. But Aldridich knew that Monday morning what she felt. And that wasn't just paint on her brush, it was passion. And she was having a great day.

L.E.A.P.S and Bounds can be reached at (619) 233-8123.

Copyright 2001 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.