By all measures, Al Cahen could be a Hollywood invention: the dashing young poet and painter who volunteers at Judson Park in the 1970s, where he meets his future wife, helps a resident recapture his creative mojo, and then 40 years later returns as a resident himself, in a state of creative despair. Working one-on-one with a Judson art therapist, Al is drawn out of his shell, resumes his painting, and mounts a life-affirming exhibition. Curtain falls; audience applauds wildly!
Only Al Cahen’s story isn’t fiction.
“This is an amazing Judson story,” says Cathy Bryan, Judson’s coordinator of creative arts and art therapy. “And in so many ways, it reflects the principals of Comfort Matters at its best.”
An innovative care model developed by Beatitudes Campus, a continuing care retirement community in Arizona, Comfort Matters creates a person-centered culture for dementia care that moves beyond physical treatment to incorporate members’ psychosocial and spiritual needs. In 2016, Judson became the first site in Ohio to integrate this evidence-based model into their dementia care program.
As a result, memory care residents like Al enjoy a life that honors their individual identities, emphasizing a personalized approach to providing meaning, comfort and connection.
For Al Cahen, that meant helping him re-establish his creative identity.
A self-trained artist who began painting in 1972, Al came to his practice after working as an industrial engineer, an English instructor, and co-editor and publisher of a Cleveland literary journal, American Weave.
In the 1970s, he met Ivy Volper, a former fine and commercial artist who had retired to Judson Park. Ivy’s eyesight was failing and he could barely see to paint.
“Ivy had really been down in the dumps,” recalls Mary Cahen, who met her future husband in Judson Park’s art therapy room in 1978. Something about Ivy’s situation resonated in the younger man, and Al determined to find a way to get Ivy painting again. He eventually hit upon the notion of setting up a large white canvas in the bright daylight, in his driveway, and giving Ivy black paint and a stick to drip it from.
“It worked,” says Mary. “Under those conditions, Ivy was able to see his work, and they started painting together, Jackson Pollock-style.”
For Al, the intervention proved revelatory. “I saw a man reborn that day,” he told a Cleveland Press reporter in an article from that era.
Eventually, Ivy regained some vision through surgery, and the partnership grew, with the two artists – one in his 40s, the other in his 90s – getting together about once a week to paint in Al’s studio.
In March 1979, an exhibition of Al and Ivy’s collaborations – “Confluence” – opened at the Ross Widen Gallery in Lyndhurst. The two men continued to paint together, and mount exhibitions of their joint work, into the 1980s.
In 1993, Al and Mary moved to Florida to be nearer to family, ultimately returning to the area in 2005.
“We thought we would stay there forever,” says Mary of their Cleveland Heights town home. “But then Al’s dementia showed up.”
In early 2016, the couple moved to Judson Manor. To better serve his memory care needs, Al moved to Judson Park’s Reinberger assisted-living neighborhood the following November.
And that’s when life began to come full circle.
“When I first met Al at the Manor, he hadn’t painted in about a-year-and-a-half,” says Cathy Bryan, Judson’s art therapy coordinator. “Knowing he had dementia, he was very depressed and had stopped creating.”
Determined to help Al reconnect to his identity, Cathy immediately began encouraging him to take up his brush.
“His first time in the open studio, he was very tentative,” she says. “I told him, ‘We’re going to pretend our brushes are our dance partners. Sometimes the brush leads you and sometimes you lead the brush.’ And he got it! We connected right away. He was just so expressive about composition and color and line: Even when he couldn’t articulate, I understood him. We each speak two languages, I told him – English and art – and the language of art needs no words. As a poet, that notion really resonated with Al.”
Thanks to Cathy’s creative cajoling, unwavering encouragement, and a host of therapeutic techniques, Al began painting again. “It just opened him up and gave him success, and a purpose and something to look forward to. Now he’s done hundreds of paintings with me,” she says, adding that Al is also once again creating poetry. “He has all this new energy from connecting to that inner artist.”
With Al painting again, Cathy felt an exhibition of his work might be the next therapeutic step.
In preparation, Cathy and Al’s daughter-in-law Diane went through stacks of Al’s paintings. “These pieces had been in storage for 10 years,” says Mary. “Cathy pulled them out, added a few pieces that were in my apartment, and somehow put together this beautiful show.”
Comprising more than 80 paintings – including current works, early works and collaborations with both Ivy Volpert and Mary – the exhibition opened in Judson Park’s Streeter Gallery in February, where it continues through May 10.
“The opening was packed,” says Mary, “and Al was right there in the middle of it, sitting in his wheelchair, taking it all in. He seemed to go back 20 to 40 years, and was able to recognize his old neighbors and friends. He was just in heaven, and he has been better ever since.”
The improvements in Al’s condition have moved Mary deeply. “Cathy provided so much love and support,” she says. “It was the best relationship Al could possibly have had. She has a way of being there for Al that was just what he needed, and she has the skills that allow her to connect with him as an artist. She got to know him as a person, and that has been the key.”
Dramatic as it has been, Al’s enhanced quality of life doesn’t really surprise Cathy. Rather, she sees it as a predictable example of Comfort Matters’ philosophy in action.
“Comfort Matters is a person-directed approach that relies on us really getting to know the individual. With my expertise in art, counseling and dementia care, I was able to follow Al’s lead and to anticipate his concerns. That helped me respond to Al as an artist, and engage the part of him that hadn’t been so much affected by dementia.
“Comfort Matters isn’t just what I do; it’s a culture that pervades all of Judson,” adds Cathy. “As a result, Al has been able to continue his life’s journey as an artist. Despite his memory issues, he is experiencing joy and success and friendship.
“And really, what else is there to life?”