John was a lot of things—a Vietnam veteran, a brother, a father, an Alzheimer’s patient. He was also a participant in Art to Life, an Honors College course at The University of Alabama where students are paired with people with dementia or traumatic brain injuries and tasked with building relationships through weekly art therapy sessions, an avenue for the patients to safely express emotion.

An art therapy session for the Art to Life course

For his two assigned students, John was a challenge. He was guarded, seemed less than interested, and had trouble communicating, but as the weeks slowly progressed, so did their relationship. Brick by brick, they tore down his walls, their progress becoming undeniable during a musical session one Friday. As John uncharacteristically stood up, danced, laughed and sang along, the innate joyful soul the students had been trying to draw out of him finally shined blindingly on everyone that was there.

That same weekend, John went missing. He had wandered away.

It became more uncertain whether John would return as the days piled on. Dr. Daniel Potts, neurologist, creator and instructor of the course, asked the two students if they would like to be assigned a new person. They declined. Instead, they chose to use the remaining weeks to honor John.

“The two of them would do the art directives as if John was between them, saying things like, ‘what would John do here? I think he would put blue, so let’s put blue,’” Potts said. “They were completely centered on him, despite the fact that he was gone.”

A celebration marks the end of the course, where families of the participants are invited to hear students speak about how much the experience and the people meant to them, and they present them with carefully crafted quilts and books that capture their life stories.

John’s body was found after six weeks. He was not present at the celebration, but his family, his students, his spirit and their memories of him were.

“For me, that’s what Art to Life is all about, because all of these people are fading out and fading away. We’re capturing relationships and their personhood and preserving that for the world,” Potts said.

Started in 2011, Art to Life was a product of Potts’s foundation called Cognitive Dynamics. The foundation was inspired by his father’s journey with Alzheimer’s, which Potts remembers by the countless watercolor paintings his father created during his time at Caring Days Adult Daycare. The positive, comforting effect the art had on his father fueled Potts’s desire to share it with others, and Art to Life enables that.

Art to Life students pose with the art created in one of their sessions at Caring Days

Around 15 students participate in the course each semester, and two or three of those students are randomly assigned to one person at Caring Days. The weekly roundtable art therapy sessions are the heart of the course, but they have lectures as well, where the students learn about dementia, types of therapy, breakthroughs in the field, write about their experience and even simulate dementia to garner a deeper understanding of what the people go through. They attempt to draw out facets of their participants’ lives throughout the semester, collecting pictures, interests, stories and the art they make to compile into the “legacy book” they eventually present them.

The course attracts a multitude of backgrounds—students of all majors, family histories, with personal experience with dementia or without it. What most of them walk away with, regardless of background, is a changed perspective on compassion and the stigmas that surround dementia.

“I think I came into college very cynical and very jaded, thinking as though the only thing someone could give was their intellect, and that class just very much changed my perspective on that,” Zoe Berndt, facilitator of Art to Life, said. “There’s a lot more personhood to someone, even if they can’t remember your name or what they had for breakfast.”

The type of connection built varies with each pairing, as some participants are far along while others have more recent diagnoses. Carlisle Washburne, who took the course in fall 2019, was paired with Frances, one of the most severe patients that semester.

“It was really cool to form a relationship with someone who was uninhibited by worry, shame or regret. That had all faded away,” Washburne said. “She was just there with me in the moment, because that was all she had left. That was all her brain would allot her.”

The relationships can also be unexpected for students, as evident in Berndt’s experience with the course. She never would have thought she would feel more similar than different from an 85-year-old woman from rural Alabama named Clara, Berndt explained. She did, however, and her memories of the course revolve around the emotions of it rather than the moments.

“It’s this overwhelming feeling of gratitude for being in the same space and time as that other human being,” Berndt said. “There’s been millions upon millions of people that have come before me. What are the odds that I get to live in the same space and time as Miss Clara does or Dr. Potts does? One in a billion, right?”

Multiple Art to Life students are paired up with a single patient at Caring Days to engage with over the course of the semester

Potts recognizes that because of the impact it has, students should be able to continue with the content of the course even if they have already completed it. His foundation now sponsors a program called Art to Life Outreach for that purpose. It allows students to work with one or two people in assisted living facilities in Tuscaloosa for the remainder of their college career.

The influence persistently broadens, and Art to Life continues to change as the people in it do. Potts hopes the new things he learns each semester translate back into the course. His main goal for it, however, is steadfast.

“Honor the personhood of every human being, regardless of diagnosis, circumstance or socio-cultural background,” Potts said. “Honor personhood in any form, because it’s inherent and unfading, and it makes us better people to do that.”