No Water in a Mural for People with Alzheimer’s

Ordinarily, Maine artist Francine Schrock prefers to paint in solitude. She recently took a risk and ventured outside of her studio. The opportunity led her down an unexpected path.

Courtesy Jim Hall Photography

Interestingly, a winding path cuts through the middle of Francine’s latest work, a huge mural at Fallbrook Woods in Portland, Maine. The path wasn’t in her original sketch. “My preliminary sketch was all water, Adirondack chairs and the ocean … out to the abyss,” she says. “It was quickly nixed.”

It was nixed because Fallbrook Woods is an assisted living facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease. “A lot of people with Alzheimer’s and dementia become fearful of water,” explains administrator Linda Olore.

So, it was back to the drawing board. Linda turned to residents, who poured through scenic Maine pictures and found one with trees and lupines and mountains in the background. It became the seed of the final painting.

When Francine was first approached about the mural project, she was worried that it would be difficult to handle. She would be painting out in the open and her audience would include residents. Her grandmother had Alzheimer’s and she remembers it as a very serious and emotionally draining experience. But when she visited Fallbrook, met Linda and some of the residents and got a look at the blank wall — her canvas — she thought, “This is going to be awesome.”

Courtesy Fallbrook Woods

From the moment Francine made her first mark on the wall until she signed her signature, she painted in front of an audience that gave her a lot of feedback. “I had at least 10 people every day watching me. It was really interesting to hear the dialogue going on. They’d talk to me and I’d try to talk to them and also stay focused. It created this interesting atmosphere to paint inside of.”

Courtesy Fallbrook Woods

“When we started this process, I don’t think any of us realized the impact it would have, not only on the residents but also family and staff,” says Linda. “Residents would be out in the lobby after breakfast getting themselves a cup of coffee and anxiously asking when Francine was arriving.”

None of the residents recalls helping to decide the subject matter or even being asked, but several remember watching Francine as she painted. “We all sat and watched,” Peggy told me. “This whole place was full. I just think it’s amazing.”

“She did a remarkable job,” said Denise. “Unbelievable. This wall was just a wall and now you look at it and it’s like you walk through a field and go up toward the mountains.”

“Absolutely phenomenal,” added Mary. “Great, great. Isn’t it?”

Courtesy Jim Hall Photography

The idea for the mural came about because she was looking for a way to bring the beauty of the outdoors into the facility says Linda. Musician Kate Schrock was helping with another project and recommended Francine (no relation) as an artist. Thanks to the efforts of John Campbell at Maine Paint, Benjamin Moore donated all of the paint.

It took Francine only six days to complete the mural. I know, amazing, isn’t it?

Lots of amazing things have happened. A resident who had trouble getting out even a few words talked clearly about the mural. “On three different occasions she was in the lobby with a caregiver and was able to speak two or three sentences about the mural,” says Linda. “It was absolutely amazing. I was also surprised to listen to another resident in the later stages of Alzheimer’s tell her family about how high up the person was. For her to have this recollection of Francine on the scaffolding painting and able to describe it was really magical. It obviously stayed with her.”

Courtesy Jim Hall Photography

The experience has also stayed with Francine. It gave her closure about her grandmother. She connected with the residents and gained wisdom from them.

It was on the second day that she had an epiphany. “I had been immersed in it for about 10 hours, when I realized this is what I want to do,” she says. “It’s just such meaningful work — making art and touching people’s lives. They so appreciate what you’re doing.”

The paint on the Fallbrook Woods mural is barely dry and Francine is already actively pursuing opportunities to paint murals at other assisted living facilities. If you’re interested, the best way to reach her is by email. She comes with excellent references.

Courtesy Jim Hall Photography