Jennifer McKnight’s new class pairs design students with dementia patients

by | Nov 28, 2017

Every UMSL course that she teaches demands a lot from her graphic design students, and the one she piloted over the summer was no exception.
Jennifer McKnight, design professor

(Photo by August Jennewein)

Every course that Jennifer McKnight teaches at the University of Missouri–St. Louis demands a lot from her graphic design students, and the one she piloted over the summer was no exception. They faced an especially tall order: making a difference for people living with dementia.

In collaboration with local retirement community Brooking Park and visiting Belgian designer Andrea Wilkinson, McKnight connected each class member with a different memory-care resident, asking students to create positive, interactive experiences.

“Graphic designers are trained to problem solve and test their solutions,” says McKnight, an associate professor in the Department of Art and Design. “And they’re creative about how they do that, which means many populations find those skills useful.”

She recalls how one student, after a long struggle to communicate with his assigned partner, eventually found a way to help the resident.

“He realized her best moments were when she could engage her intellect to critique certain images,” McKnight explains. “She seemed to derive joy from it, from the way the patterns worked. And while she wasn’t able to make art with her hands anymore, she still had this huge breadth of knowledge.”

He reached out to the patient’s family to learn who her favorite artists were. Then he showed her works by those artists to see which ones elicited the most delight before creating a bound book for her to keep. It’s filled with conversation prompts and visuals.

“Now a caregiver or family member who isn’t from the art world can help her to this moment of pleasure,” McKnight says. “I loved what this did not just for her but for my student, who really put himself out there and collected a lot of data in order to do this.”

Other projects included a guide to doing art projects with older audiences and a jigsaw puzzle featuring one patient’s most cherished aspects of his life. All of the designs demonstrate the intelligence and thoughtfulness of McKnight’s students, who have become one of her greatest joys.

“I cannot get enough of it,” she says. “Watching them come into the program and become masters of material they thought was possibly too hard – and learn over and over that hard things are not things to be scared of – it’s so exciting. They go off into the rest of their lives confident about exploring other new areas.”

She hopes to offer the Design and Dementia class again soon. It resonated on multiple levels for McKnight, whose own mother was among the participating dementia patients.

“As a family member, I tend to pay attention to what’s missing instead of what’s there, and there’s quite a bit there,” McKnight says, emphasizing how one of her students helped remind her of that. “We often think of dementia as depressing. But what we found in this class are people who are very alive and full of resources and skills. They have so much to offer the rest of us.”

This story was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of 
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Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill