The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

Painting Memories: Art uplifts and inspires a 91-year old Mexican man with dementia

Luisa Ornelas
Reyna De Jesus and her father, Raymundo Gonzalez, presents his art at LAMDA Headquarters in Cicero, Ill., March 8, 2024. Seniors are learning to cope with memory loss through painting at the LAMDA art exhibition.

At 91 years of age, Raymundo Gonzalez has found that he loves to paint. 

His paintings, often depicting the love between a man and a woman, were recently part of an art exhibit. Though he attended the exhibit dressed in his Sunday best, he doesn’t remember ever creating the piece. 

Still, he smiled as he admired it.

Art has been quite therapeutic for Gonzalez’s mental and physical health.

“Tu la pintaste papá. You painted it, dad,” his daughter reminds him as she hands it to him. 

Gonzalez nodded and smiled while the rest of the artists surrounded him. 

They’re all Latino seniors from the Chicago area and most are experiencing some level of dementia or Alzheimers. The group of seniors participated in their first art exhibition last month after learning to paint in a new art therapy program under the Latino Alzheimer’s and Memory Disorders Alliance (LAMDA). 

“Art helps our seniors focus and concentrate—physically it helps them with the movement of their hands and it gives them a purpose to feel appreciated by showcasing their art at our exhibits,” said Luisa Ornelas, 46, the program coordinator. 

Luisa Ornelas stands in front of her students’ work at LAMDA Headquarters in Cicero, Ill., on April 10, 2024. Ornelas is passionate about sharing her love for art with her seniors. (Ariana Vargas)

Ornelas began instructing occasional art classes for LAMDA seniors two years ago in her private studio in Pilsen. When she realized the importance of her work, six months ago, she began working full-time with the organization. 

The classes and the interaction with other elders have helped some cope with depression, Ornelas said. The activities help them gain confidence and independence that can naturally lift their spirits. 

“I try to motivate them and within a couple of months they’re excited to be interacting with the rest of the class, creating art, and no longer need my help as much,” she said. 

When she teaches she focuses on impressionism but they also create landscapes and modern art. 

“Many of them indulge in creating their art (now). They weren’t aware of how much they enjoyed art and now even enjoy going to museums and analyzing pieces because of the knowledge they were able to acquire from our class.” said Ornelas. 

Gonzalez’s daughter, Reyna de Jesus, 61, makes sure that her father attends the class religiously. 

Her father suffered from a stroke seven years prior that left him with stage two Alzheimer’s, she said. The art classes have given him newfound motivation and it’s given her some support as she takes care of her father. 

“I (take care of him full time) because, besides all the love I have for him, I wouldn’t want to put him in a nursing home because I feel as if he would fall into depression and he would leave us sooner than anticipated,” De Jesus said in Spanish. 

Latino elders are more likely than other ethnic groups to develop dementia and their caretakers, often their family members, tend to be more emotionally and economically impacted, according to research. They are also less likely to get a diagnosis or seek treatment.

Constantina Mizis, 56, whose great-grandmother also suffered from Alzheimer’s, was inspired to create the nonprofit organization that works to educate and engage Spanish-speaking Latino caregivers by providing skill-building training and support programs. The organization evolved to ensure programming, like the art class and karaoke for the seniors to better their quality of life. 

“When people ask me ‘why would I feel the need to support your organization?’ to which I respond, ‘It’s a moral responsibility to look after our elderly and take care of one another!’, Mizis said. 

LAMDA doesn’t just serve seniors with Alzheimer’s and Dementia, they serve all seniors.

Wanda Petrovic, 65, found her way to LAMDA’s doorstep two years ago after her husband died. Now the art program is one of her favorites. 

Wanda Petrovic poses in front of her painting at LAMDA Headquarters in Cicero, Ill., on April 10, 2024. Painting helps her cope with the loss of her husband. (Ariana Vargas)

“I was completely crushed after my late husband’s death—but a friend brought me to LAMDA, I was revived; thanks to LAMDA and all of the wonderful people here,” said Petrovic. “Every day I feel that love, that warmth of their embrace, their respect and I feel absolutely comfortable.”  

She was proud of all the paintings that Ornelas picked as part of the exhibit. 

“In those moments when I am painting, it gives me an enormous amount of relaxation and I started to be more fond of art after our teacher took us to the art museums,” Petrovic said. “I could distinguish what techniques the painter was using, thanks to the art education I have been able to receive.” 

De Jesus said she is grateful for her father and for all the support she’s found in the organization. 

“LAMDA has helped my father tremendously as he is also able to remember a song he composed for the city of Chicago; Will you sing it to us, father?” De Jesus asked him. 

“Chicago, Chicago ciudad de bullicio, sin duda seras la mejor del mundo..” sings Gonzalez in Spanish in a melodic tune. “Chicago, Chicago the city of hustle and bustle, no doubt you will be the best in the world.”

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