Ocean Science Meets Art by People With Dementia

By Stefanie Wardlow, Senior Program Manager, Alzheimer’s Association®

Not many people can claim to have contributed to an ocean research voyage, but that is exactly what a group of residents and staff at a health center in Lakeland, Fla now have done. 

It all started with a collaboration between Danielle Cox (Dani), a Ph.D. candidate with the University of California, Santa Barbara and Matthew Thompson, administrator at The Estates at Carpenter’s in Lakeland, Florida. 

Danielle Cox and Matthew Thompson in front of HOV Alvin, a human-occupied submersible that is used in deep-ocean research. Alvin is on board the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute’s Research Vessel Atlantis.

Dani was taking part in a research mission with a group of other scientists who were examining the chemical and microbiological studies of water-soluble alkanes in the ocean. They were going to be traveling out into the Gulf of Mexico to the sea floor to conduct various research projects. Dani, having family that works in health care, reached out to her Uncle Matt with an idea of including his center in the trip. 

About the science

Between September 24 and October 10, 2022, the large vessel Atlantis took Alvin and several scientists and students on a tour of the Gulf of Mexico that  began in Tampa and ended in Pensacola. The main research mission, led by David L. Valentine, Ph.D., would address the fate and effects of hydrocarbons that enter the ocean. Dani’s contribution focused on how marine bacteria provide essential chemicals for the growth of the seaweed that live on in the vast, low-nutrient expanses of the open ocean. Their research required gathering samples and data sometimes at or near the ocean floor. The submersible Alivn had a max depth of 1574 meters (5164 feet) or approximately 1 mile deep. The water pressure at this depth is about 2500 PSI. That is every square inch of the outside of Alivin’s hull was pressed on by 2,500 pounds of force.  

About the art 

Residents and staff were given instructions about the researchers’ trip to the ocean floor. It was explained how pressure could crush some objects outside of the submersible. Next, a staff led activity commenced using markers and Styrofoam cups and discs.

These decorated Styrofoam cups and discs traveled on the back of Alvin, 1 mile down to the sea floor where the pressure compressed them into miniature artistic creations. 

Activities such as this can create a sense of accomplishment and purpose. Some of the residents in the health center plan to keep their unique creations and display them in their rooms while other residents have decided to give them as a one-of-a-kind present to one of their children, grandchildren, or great grandchildren. 

For more activity ideas join ALZConnected, our message boards and online support community.

Q&A with Dani

What happened to the items once you brought them down to the ocean? 

Because styrofoam has so many air pockets between particles, they appear to shrink when we bring them deeper in the ocean. This is because the increasing pressure as we descend squeezes out the air and compacts the particles closer together. Since Alvin is a pressurized underwater vehicle to allow for people to safely reach the seafloor,  we attached a mesh bag to the outside with all the styrofoam pieces in it. This way, the styrofoam gets compressed, but we don’t! 

Why did your project pick styrofoam? 

Oceanographers for decades have been sending styrofoam cups down with deep-ocean instrumentation as personalized souvenirs of their research ventures. I expanded this tradition to styrofoam cups and disks to make decorating more accessible for the residents while still getting to take part in a classic oceanography tradition.

Why do you think this is important to include people with dementia in projects like this?  

Bridging the gap between the scientific community and the public is critical for turning our discoveries into actionable change. Outreach efforts are often geared towards the younger generations to foster an interest in science, but connecting with the elderly community is just as important given they have the ability to use their voting power to support our work currently. Many outreach efforts are not conducive to the limitations people with dementia struggle with. By keeping this effort simple, we emphasized the abilities of dementia patients to engage with the scientific community. Including a token of the project to keep with them forever additionally serves as a memory aid for these individuals, both regarding their involvement in this project and the memories they chose to use as inspiration while decorating. Finally, the decorating event itself created an opportunity for residents to socialize, which is known to be vital for supporting brain health.

Did this experience change your perception or perspective of people with Alzheimer’s or other dementia?

Absolutely! This project allowed my lab to connect with a group often overlooked in typical scientific outreach efforts, which is deeply rewarding. My involvement led me to expand my knowledge of dementia and Alzheimer’s symptoms, difficulties, and treatment practices in order to choose an activity that would best support these individuals. This is certainly an effort I plan to continue for my future research expeditions and will be encouraging my colleagues to adopt as well!

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