Jul 8, 2001.
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.
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.
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
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."
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
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
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.