When Warren Weinstock was asked to teach an art class to people with memory impairments, his response would have done Hippocrates proud.
He called his physician son-in-law and asked worriedly, "Could I do anybody any harm?" He was afraid he might frustrate or confuse his students, he said.
Weinstock's son-in-law reassured him that it would be all right. In fact, there's a long tradition of using art and music in caring for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia: to help people express themselves, to provide something positive and uplifting on which to focus their minds. Sometimes art is one of the few ways they can still communicate.
The art-class experiment has proven successful, not only for the students but for Weinstock. Retired from his career in real estate, the swift-talking 88-year-old is clearly thrilled to devote his time to the drawing and painting he has enjoyed for decades. A resident of the Moldaw Residences at Palo Alto's Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, Weinstock has been teaching two sets of art classes at Moldaw for a couple of years: weekly sessions with his fellow active residents, and twice-monthly ones in Moldaw's memory-care unit.
Classes in the memory unit require special consideration. Weinstock frequently asks his son-in-law for advice in designing sessions. He has to remember that his students may not remember what he's taught them from one week to the next. Even his hues are carefully chosen.
"You've got to keep them away from violent color. You can't have exciting things," he says.
A class at Moldaw on a recent afternoon is all about purples and pinks and pale blues. Weinstock lays out soft pastel crayons on the art table and places a photo of a violet sunset over water on a small easel. He urges his students to gather round. Nearby in the warmly lit activity room, a board lists other events of the day: exercise with Eve, brain fitness, armchair travel. Pumpkins decorate an upright piano.
Four people, including one in a wheelchair, join the drawing class. "You want to play?" Weinstock asks gently of two others, who opt to watch in silence. Around the table, there isn't much talking at all, but the students seem content to quietly draw as Weinstock guides them in copying the photo. Many have surprisingly sure hands.
The students sketch the large elements in the photo: rocks, a tree, the sky. Weinstock urges them to use both the side and edge of the crayon, to enjoy the texture and focus on the main elements rather than worrying about detail. "You can't make any mistakes," he says. "Whatever you see you can put down, in very simple form." He smiles. "That's it. That's great."
"Where is it?" one man asks about the photo.
"Sunset on Devil's Elbow State Park in Oregon," Weinstock reads from the caption.
The man asks the same question five or six times more during the class, and Weinstock answers it every time, calling him "Doc" in a jocular fashion. When they get to drawing the water, Weinstock hands him another pastel. "Here, Doc. Put your light blue in." From outside the window comes the sound of children playing at the nearby Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
The student used to be a surgeon. Another man at the table was a child psychiatrist. "He was much more alert a year ago," Weinstock says of the psychiatrist.
Is it difficult for Weinstock to see his students change? "Very. But you can't let them know."
Danelle Trudeau, a lifestyle coordinator at Moldaw who has been watching the class, points out that there is joy even in a memory-care unit. Some of the residents love to sing in music class. Many seem to find pleasure in expressing themselves through art and music even when they don't speak anymore.
"Though they've declined cognitively, they're still very much alive, very much human. We have to learn their new language," she says.
Weinstock nods. "They're the same people. They're just acting differently."
Weinstock seems in his element teaching art, and perhaps that's where he was meant to be. A native of San Francisco, he's been drawing since the age of 7 and has an art-school degree. His balcony wall at his apartment has a verdant mural that he painted of Butchart Gardens in British Columbia.
Elsewhere in the building is a craft room that the Moldaw folks have let Weinstock turn into an art studio for teaching and painting. Floor-to-ceiling windows show off paintings and drawings by him and his students, and many of the works are professionally mounted on the wall outside. The area is turning into a real art gallery.
Weinstock is always happy to lead visitors on a lengthy walk through many halls and corners of the building, describing the artwork on the walls. Outside his front door is a boat-and-water scene he painted, with the boat named "Annie" after his granddaughter. Every six months he puts up a different painting.
Back in class, the session wraps up after about 45 minutes. "Next time I'll show you how to make detail," Weinstock says, handing around paper towels for the students to wipe pastel residue off their fingers.
Trudeau asks one of the men who had only watched what he thought of the class. "It was interesting," he says.
One of the drawing students, Caroline, says she always enjoys the sessions. "You get out and see people."
The mood is still peaceful as the students disperse. This ambiance is one of the greatest gifts an art class brings to a memory-care unit, Trudeau says. "It's very meditative, a way to focus energy."
She adds, "The main goal is the process, not the product."
Info: Moldaw Residences are at 899 E. Charleston Road in Palo Alto. To schedule a visit to see artwork by Warren Weinstock and his students, call 650-433-3629 and ask for Naazmin Khan.