Earlier this fall, I took on a new role as Manager of Senior Programming at the Hudson Valley Community Center in Poughkeepsie, NY. Like any part-time position in a nonprofit organization, it’s been almost a full-time job, which is why I haven’t been posting too frequently lately. Once the new year gets rolling though, I expect ElderSparks will see more action and inspire new writing. Although my current responsibilities are rewarding enough, I miss making art with seniors who have cognitive impairment. One secret I’ve pretty much kept to myself these last few years is how much fun it’s been to finally find other adults to play with.

On that note, I wish everyone a merry Christmas and delightful New Year.

Picture This

One of the best photo shows I’ve ever seen was an exhibit of work by inner city children who photographed their community with disposable cameras. The images reflected the spontaneity and freedom of un-trained eyes and had a quality I could never hope to match as a professional with decades of experience. Similarly, I’ve often been delighted by the art that comes out of ElderSparks, whether done by an individual receiving care or someone giving it. It’s been one of the most rewarding and inspiring aspects of this work.

I recently led a workshop, entitled Picture This, at a creative caregiving conference that piggy-backed on the one I attended in June. Its description read as follows:

Producing a graphic novel that’s over the top in under an hour. This hands-on workshop features guided drawing, image-driven text, collaborative plot development, and lots of laughs. The less talent you have as an artist or writer, the greater the fun. More significantly, you’ll acquire a valuable addition to your caregiving tool kit.

The class was based on an exercise I had done earlier with a private nursing home client as a way to experience and enjoy connectedness, strengthen powers of observation, encourage self-expression regardless of ability, and explore the realm of feelings.

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Only Connect

This very moving video comes via Memory Bridge:

Click here for more information about Naomi Feil and Validation Therapy.

High Fives at Five

I recently asked a resident of a nursing home how he liked living there. He said it was like “being in jail. Just hurry up and die.” He wasn’t a newcomer, nor was he angry or upset. He was just resigned to a fate that seemed immutable. It was as damning as any indictment I’ve heard.

Forty-five years ago, while standing on a Boston subway platform, I noticed a beautiful bentwood rocking chair nearby. It belonged to a furniture maker who was bringing it back to his workshop for repair. He graciously let me sit in it until the train arrived, an experience that transformed a totally mundane, somewhat unpleasant ritual into something special. I realized then that it doesn’t take millions of dollars and years of construction to infuse urban spaces with wonder and delight, or with catalysts for positive social interaction.

That insight inspired Pedestrian Games, a modest movement of multi-disciplinary happenings and installations that engaged the public in novel, life-affirming ways, and took the pedestrian quality out of walking on city sidewalks — a precursor to today’s flash mobs and Improv Everywhere. It was also the start of my long-term dedication to play and its invigorating role in the lives of jaded, world-weary adults — or those with cognitive impairment whom ElderSparks serves.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

Closet Door

Airport Wings

Two Pedestrian Games: (top) standing behind a closet door on a Boston subway platform; (bottom) walking around Logan Airport dressed as a typical traveler except for the pair of wings on my back.

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A Sad Farewell

Five days after my most recent post, I was informed by Anna’s caregivers that my services were no longer desired. Their formal and impersonal email came as a complete surprise to me in the absence of any prior discussion or hints there was something amiss. I suspect that the two friends responsible for her care never really understood what ElderSparks was about or how much each session meant to Anna. They simply expected that the four-five hours/week I spent with her would accomplish what counseling sessions, anti-depressants, outside excursions, and nursing home recreational activities hadn’t, and that anything short of a miraculous transformation wasn’t worth the expense.

I waited until the end of our last appointment to tell Anna I wouldn’t be returning. Our final project was an improvisational effort that produced a mini (micro might actually be more accurate) graphic novel. We began by drawing faces that depicted various emotional and mental states, e.g., anger, joy, bewilderment, worry, fear, sadness, etc. From these, we took turns selecting pictures and making up dialog that would match the expressions. (See for the original inspiration.) Anna immediately set the wheels in motion for a drama filled with unrequited love.

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Work in Progress

Since July, I’ve been working with a private client whom I see twice a week for 2-hour sessions at the nursing home where she lives. Anna (a pseudonym to protect her privacy) is an impish-looking woman who used to work in human services, and still retains a life-long love of folk music and the great outdoors. Her hiking legs aren’t what they used to be but she still gets around without a cane or walker, climbs steps on her own by grasping onto the railing, and opens doors by herself. She is where she is because of a dementia diagnosis and physical ailments that require nursing oversight. Despite two hearing aids, it’s hard for her to understand anyone who’s not addressing her directly.

She usually waits for me at the front entrance, impeccably groomed in a knitted polo, crew neck sweatshirt, spotless jeans, and fashionable walking shoes, and with a tale of woe that varies only in the order of its sentences from one visit to the next: “I can’t take it anymore. I’m depressed and miserable. I’m bored out of my mind and have no friends. This is no way to live. I’ve got to get out of here.” Sometimes, there’s so much desperation in her voice and body language that my heart goes out to her — I want to wave a magic wand that will immediately whisk her to some eldercare nirvana. Unfortunately though, there’s no such thing in the ElderSparks toolkit. Nor do I know of a better place she can realistically go.

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Conference Notes

During a six-day stretch at the end of May/beginning of June, I attended two terrific conferences devoted to caregiving: the Arts in Healthcare Summit sponsored by the Orange County Arts Council on May 31st in Middletown, NY; and the Aging in Place Partnership’s Creative Caregiving for Healthy Living on June 5th in my old stomping ground of South Brunswick, NJ.

The keynote speech in Middletown was given by Dr. James Noble, a neurologist at Columbia University with a private practice specializing in memory disorders. Dr. Noble is also a founder of Arts & Minds, a nonprofit organization partnering with the Studio Museum in Harlem to provide art-centered experiences for dementia patients and their caregivers. His talk was a detailed overview of Alzheimer’s research and treatment approaches as they’ve evolved since the 1900s. For all of us artists in attendance, hearing a research scientist and practicing physician make the case for integrating the arts with medical care was almost as good as a solo show at MOMA :)

Paul Nolan, Director of Music Therapy Programs in Drexel University’s Department of Creative Arts Therapies, spoke in the afternoon about using music to elicit responses in patients with dementia that would then become the basis for more positive engagement. He ended his presentation with something Andrew Sackler said that offers a fresh perspective on those we partner with: “Art is passion seeking discipline; science is discipline seeking passion.”

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