Mneme therapy helps the brain through the brush

WOODSTOCK –Phil LoMonaco isn’t much of a painter. Not unless you count that barn back in the day.

Yet here he is, brush planted in his right hand, making thick strokes of blue and white across the top of a square canvas.

“This is going to be like a cooking class,” Dori Thompson had told him. “I’ve got the recipe. I’ve got all the ingredients. I just need you to follow the directions.”

It’s an average Tuesday at Family Alliance, a Woodstock-based adult care center.

LoMonaco, of Sun City, has been pulled into a side room, where it’s his turn for “mneme therapy,” a therapy founded by the Art Without Boundaries Association in the early 2000s that uses singing, movement, painting and storytelling to stimulate the brain.

Thompson is the state’s only mneme therapist – pronounced with a silent “m”. Self-employed but under the umbrella of Art Without Boundaries, Thompson travels across the state working with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Sometimes she works with autistic children. The art-based therapy can make a world of difference, she said.

“We say we offer a rewarding experience, but sometimes incredible things happen in the process,” she said.

Thompson said she’s seen a patient whose vision had been flipped after a stroke regain proper sight during a mneme therapy session. She’s seen those with extreme short-term memory loss talk about the therapy session for hours after the fact.

Mainly, the improvements are smaller, such as someone who’s usually quiet starting to chatter.

Or someone able to touch hand to knee when, before the session, those sorts of coordinated movements were difficult.

“It’s not art therapy. It’s a whole brain therapy,” Thompson said. “We’re trying to encourage neuroplasticity in the brain by making new connections.”

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to make new neural connections to account for things such as disease and injury.

Family Alliance leadership adopted the therapy technique this spring, and they now bring Thompson in on a weekly basis. She sees about six people a week during one-on-one sessions.

“We’ve seen it be very effective for people who are even in the advanced stage of dementia,” said Cheryl Levinson, clinical director of Family Alliance.

“It gives people a sense of purpose that we all need no matter what our abilities are at a given time,” she continued. “And it gives them an opportunity to express themselves in a way they might not be able to otherwise.”

The ability to express herself is why Susan Ray, a Family Alliance patient from McHenry, enjoyed mneme therapy, and why she enjoys art in general.

“The art is in me,” Ray said. “So it’s got to come out.”

It’s a tougher sell for people such as LoMonaco. During his 45-minute session, he cracks self-deprecating jokes about his own artistic abilities.

But when the painting is completed, revealing a lone tree sprouted from a sandy horizon, LoMonaco’s tone has changed.

“The more I look at it,” he said as Thompson held up the painting for him to scan. “The more I like it.”