Art Program for People with Dementia Spreads Far Beyond Miami

By article and video Kierra Sondereker

Along with a retired art teacher, a friend, her husband and some classmates, Elizabeth “Like” Lokon started an art program for people with dementia more than a decade ago. She was a Miami University graduate student, and her program would quickly expand from southwest Ohio to regions throughout North America.

Opening Minds through Art (OMA) is an intergenerational art program with the goal of providing creative expression for people with dementia. It partners students and other volunteers with local nursing home clients experiencing dementia. Together, they create art.

The program started in 2007 when Lokon chose to combine her background in education with her new research in gerontology at Miami University.

“When I first started going to nursing homes, I saw that people with dementia were just bored,” says Lokon. “I thought there must be another way of engaging them that takes into account the fact that they have dementia, but at the same time makes them active, more autonomous.”

OMA started in The Knolls of Oxford nursing home but has since spread to more than 150 locations in both the United States and Canada.

Originally from Indonesia, Lokon chose the name OMA because it means grandmother in Dutch, the language her parents and grandparents speak.

“I call my grandmothers Oma, and now I’m an Oma. I have 16 grandchildren,” says Lokon. “It’s a way of honoring all the grandmothers that we all have.”

Since its inception, more than 2,000 students have participated in OMA, whether as part of a Miami class, as a student leader or a volunteer.

Julianna Mori, a senior kinesiology major, joined OMA as a freshman looking for her place at Miami. She is now co-president of OMA and says she appreciates all that OMA has taught her, specifically about dementia and the insights into the lives of people with the disease.

“It’s knowing that you need to give them independence,” says Mori. “Give them the respect they deserve because ultimately, they are humans and they are your elders. And even though they have this disease, that doesn’t define them as a person.”

Pratiti Ghosh-Dastidar, a senior pre-med student at Miami, explains how OMA has impacted her life since she joined as a junior last fall.

“OMA just makes you empathetic in general,” says Ghosh-Dastidar. “Coming in, I’m so stressed out about all the work I have to do, but I show up to OMA every single week because I know someone’s waiting for me there, and they’re looking forward to hanging out with me for an hour and doing that project. And that sense of responsibility is what keeps me going.”

Ghosh-Dastidar says she enjoys OMA mainly due to the strong relationship she has built up with her art partner, Merna, over the past year. However, Ghosh-Dastidar says she never loses sight of why she does OMA, and who she does it for.

“I always make it clear that she’s the artist. She’s doing the artwork,” says Ghosh-Dastidar. “I’m just here to be her friend and to help.”

In the future, Lokon plans to train medical students and other universities in facilitating OMA programs.