HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (RNS)--Patricia Lemons and Phyllis Worley know experience is the best teacher, especially when it comes to taking care of Alzheimer's patients.

Lemons, who cared for her mother-in-law, and Worley, who took care of her father, are employees of Trinity Place, an adult day care ministry of Trinity United Methodist Church that specializes in caring for patients with Alzheimer's or other dementia-related illnesses. The women agree the rewards in caring for their patients far outweigh the salary they receive--and the heartaches and burdens they often feel in their job.

"It is amazing what they can create. They are very proud of their work, and it gives them a lot of self-esteem."

"This is not a job for me," said Lemons. "I truly enjoy it. I took care of my mother-in-law for a long time, but she had helped me with my children and I don't know what I would have done without her."

Worley said for her part, it is a labor of love.

"I just love it here," said Worley, who took care of her father for six years before his death in January. "After taking care of my dad for so long, people couldn't believe I would want to work here, but it is a wonderful place to work and very rewarding."

The women encourage their patients as they create pictures during their new art program, started recently as a pilot program of the Huntsville Museum of Art, the Alzheimer's Association and Elder Care, with funding provided by the Medical Alliance of Huntsville.

The program is designed to help the patients express themselves through art and to encourage interaction with each other, said Alzheimer's Association Executive Director Mary Lou Kraatz.

"It is amazing what they can create," said Kraatz, pointing to some of the patients' work hanging around the room and on the windows. "They are very proud of their work, and it gives them a lot of self-esteem. Just three weeks after we started the program, we saw a noticeable improvement in their behavior."

Jane Willis, dressed in a stylish blue velour pantsuit and matching hat, is quick to show a visitor her artwork hanging on a wall alongside other drawings by the Trinity patients. A longtime greeter at First Presbyterian Church, Willis "volunteers" her time each day to help other patients at the center, said Kraatz with a smile.

The program is the only one of its kind in Alabama, and possibly the South, said Kraatz. Other successful art-therapy programs for Alzheimer's patients have been started in Denver and Orange County, California.

Kraatz said she isn't aware of any evaluation tool to gauge the success of the program, but the Huntsville Alzheimer's Association is planning to develop one that can be used nationwide.

For an hour a week, Nancy Atkins, a docent at the Huntsville Museum of Art, works with the patients. Although she had no personal involvement with Alzheimer's patients, she said this project has been "one of the best experiences of my life."

"They recognize me and know we are going to do something with art. They get a lot of self-satisfaction out of it. It's a marvelous program and I love doing it."

She said the program is not for artists with Alzheimer's, but a way for Alzheimer's patients to communicate with people.

To familiarize herself with the situation, Atkins attended a Care Givers Conference last March and took a respite training course to help her understand how to deal with people with Alzheimer's.

"She relates really well with the people," said Kraatz. "If we determine this program works and we can get more funding, we hope to take it into other assisted-living or nursing-home facilities."

Kraatz said one of the main problems with the art program has been a lack of volunteers to help encourage the patients as they do the work.

"You have to seize the moment when dealing with Alzheimer's patients, and we are sometimes so busy working with others, we miss that opportunity," she said. "They need guidance, and it would be great if church groups or individuals would volunteer an hour or two of their week to help out here."

Caryl Jones, a member of the Alzheimer's Association Board of Directors, and her mother, Lucille Roebuck, are among those who volunteer their time to offer encouragement during the art sessions.

"There's a lot of joy in this room," said Jones, who hopes the artwork being done by the Alzheimer's patients will be on public display somewhere next spring. "They are still people and they have a heart."

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