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Biographical mural lets Alzheimer’s patients see their lives

Tree of Life displays pictures, tells stories

Artist Heather Harmon laughs with residents Ann Butterfield (center) and Claire Allen. Artist Heather Harmon laughs with residents Ann Butterfield (center) and Claire Allen. (Jon Chase for The Boston Globe)
By Wendy Killeen
Globe Correspondent / March 31, 2011

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There’s a retired firefighter, a women who grew up on a farm, and someone with a doctorate in law. There’s a fan of television game and crime shows and a self-described life of the party.

They are some of the residents of Wellspring Village, a community for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia that is part of Brightview Concord River assisted living in Billerica.

Their photographs and stories, as well as those of many of the other 23 residents, are featured in a hand-painted mural prominently displayed on a hallway wall outside the dining room.

“It was a no-brainer for us to take down the picture the decorators bought and put up our own beautiful piece of artwork,’’ said Debbie Salamone, director of Wellspring Village, which opened in December 2009. “They walk down the hallway and see a picture of themselves and it tells their story. It feels like home.’’

The Tree of Life mural, created by activities assistant Heather Harmon, is more than just wall art.

“Daily, all the residents pass by and love reading about other residents and they also love seeing their picture and are so proud to share their story with their friends,’’ said Salamone. “It gives them something to start the conversation.’’

“Engaging the residents is a huge part of the quality of life.’’

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million people in the United States are living with the disease and someone develops it every 69 seconds.

In Massachusetts in 2010, there were about 120,000 people 65 and older with Alzheimer’s, and that number is estimated to increase to about 140,000 by 2025.

The baby boom generation, an estimated 75 million Americans born from 1946 to 1964 — and who this year will be between the ages of 47 and 65 — is part of that increase.

“We expect numbers to triple with the baby boomers,’’ said Betsy Fitzgerald-Campbell, vice president of communications for the Massachusetts-New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. “It’s huge.’’

She said there already has been an increase in the number of assisted living facilities opening specialized units for people with Alzehimer’s and other memory impairments. Calls to the association’s helpline are increasing, as is the demand for professional training to work with Alzheimer’s patients, said Fitzgerald-Campbell.

Less than a year after opening, Wellspring — which has 27 apartments — was full and had a waiting list, Salamone said.

The idea for the Tree of Life mural came from an effort to learn and share more about the residents so their individualized needs could be met. Salamone contacted family members and asked them to write a brief life story for their relative: where they were born, what they did for work, their family life, and the things they loved to do. “Something to personalize our relationship with them,’’ she said.

Many family members responded immediately. One woman even wrote an eight-page letter about her parent.

“For a lot of them, this [now] is not the mom or dad they remember, and they want us to know this person the way they know this person,’’ Salamone said.

She took the letters and e-mails from the families and put them in a book and in residents’ care plans for staff to read so they could get to know the residents and talk to them about their lives. “With this disease, every moment is an opportunity to really make an impact,’’ Salamone said.

Because Harmon, the activities assistant, is a talented artist, they decided to make a mural to share the stories with other residents, as well as staff.

Harmon hand-painted the tree and added three-dimensional leaves.

Scattered throughout are plaques with residents’ photos and a paragraph from their life story.

“These diseases come with a lot of challenging behaviors,’’ said Salamone. “It is important to remember that is not them as a whole. This tells everybody to remember each is an individual person.’’

Though residents can quickly forget the pictures and stories, there is a lasting benefit, Salamone said. “What we have learned, and what research has taught us, is what stays with them is that feeling of feeling good. If every day they walk by and they feel special and it promotes that positive feeling, then that’s it,’’ she said.

“I love it. There is nothing like it,’’ said resident Claire Allen, 87, as she looked at the tree. Ann Butterfield, 86, agreed: “I think it is something else.’’

For more on Wellspring Village, call 978-262-1410 or visit www.- brightviewconcordriver.com. For the Alzheimer’s Association, call 617-868-6718 or visit www.alz.org. The association hot line is 800-272-3900.