Last Thursday’s Mill Street Loft program at the Vassar-Warner home — a mobile-making project with spring as its theme — reinforced for me why I’ve liked working with the residents here. In addition to being so open and appreciative, they share lots of laughs. Their humor is all the more remarkable for its appearance amidst frailty, cognitive decline, and physical ailments. Does the art making help these seniors transcend their challenges, or does it mostly attract those who already have that propensity? I suspect it’s some of both.
Perhaps I should do more research with Rose, who’ll turn 100 in three years. When Donna, Vassar-Warner’s activities supervisor, asked how she anticipated celebrating her centennial birthday, she replied with a grin: “By standing on my head.” Rose, btw, completed stage one of her mobile before anyone else.
(l-r): Mike, Rose, and Joan admire Rose’s mobile efforts.
As spring unfolds with cascading waves of color and intoxicating smells, a special garden took root in Poughkeepsie, NY last week. It was the work of 9 older women, residents of the Vassar-Warner home for seniors, whose paper collages reimagined the season just as the impressionists interpreted their world with paint.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
Joan Henry, the Artistic Director for Outreach Programs at Mill Street Loft — a 32 year-old organization merging the arts and social services — led the two-hour workshop, the first of six weekly sessions building on an earlier program that took place last winter. Despite some initial self-doubt and puzzlement, the women were excited to be back: several dived in with their green thumbs before Joan had even completed her introductory remarks.
A friend just sent me this beautiful story:
A few years ago, when he was quite old & frail, I heard Krishnamurti address a large assembly. He spoke in his accustomed softness & care for a few minutes before calling on a guy who had raised his hand with a question. Krishnamurti answered slowly, then stopped & began again, then stopped again. He said his aging had caused him to be less sharp & would the fellow just come down & hold his hand. It was a teaching for us all that some day all that might be left of us is our love.
— Stephen Levine
To which I might add: Why wait till then?
Of all the articles and commentary about the tragic killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that I read, none touched me as personally as a recent CNN.com story about the McDonnell family who lost their 7 year-old daughter Grace.
“The McDonnells were overcome when they first saw Grace’s white casket at the funeral home. ‘You felt like the floor was falling out beneath you and your breath was taken away,’ [Grace’s mother, Lynn,] said.
“But then, they pulled out Sharpies of all colors and began drawing: peace signs, ice cream cones, lighthouses, sea gulls [on the coffin]. The family said it looked like it was covered in graffiti by the time they were done.
“[They] also brought Grace’s favorite pocketbook, seashells, hair bows and flip-flops, as well as her sunglasses and a frying pan. Her father placed his New York Yankees cap with her. Grace loved Taylor Swift and Kenny Chesney — the family gave her music from both.
“‘When we left, we were like: She’s fully stocked,’ her mom recalled. ‘It was like we had joy again.’”
It reminded me of how I passed the time at my mother’s bedside in a hospital and hospice during her last six weeks of life: turning to art as a way to make her final days more meaningful for both of us. Inspired by their daughter’s passion for painting and drawing, the McDonnells drew upon their own creativity to stay connected to Grace and support her with all their love. A lack of artistic talent might have deterred others, but it brought this family even closer to the child they lost — as revealed in this Anderson Cooper interview (6:45 mark):
NOTE: If you have the fortitude, read the comments that accompany the above video. Apparently, there are some citizens who consider the McDonnell’s composure yet another sign that the elementary school murders were a government/mass media hoax.
Our second annual My Pet Leaf event took place Thanksgiving weekend at a New Jersey home for seniors with Alzheimer’s. The dozen or so residents who participated were met on arrival by a tableau of seed heads, fallen leaves, dried wasp nests, bark, husks, plumes, etc. — the bounty of local forests and meadows. Together, we spent the first few minutes touching and examining these oddly beautiful botanical specimens, and marveling at their shapes and coloration.
Through the alchemy of stick-on eyes, brightly colored foam stickers, and (last-but-not-least) our own imaginations, we then created new life forms which were given personal names and studied for their highly idiosyncratic behaviors. Oliver, we learned, had a home in the woods by the beach and really enjoyed meeting and talking with people. The elongated head of another creature was easily mistaken for a tree under which a completely different animal lived.
My monthly ElderSparks session with a group of Alzheimer’s patients was scheduled for the Saturday before Halloween. In the holiday spirit, I wanted to do something with masks, but this time, I tried a slightly different approach. Instead of making the mask from scratch as an integrated whole, I thought it might be fun to draw mouths, noses, and pairs of eyes independently of each other, and only later, assemble faces using the disparate pieces. Call it comic Cubism. If we could also learn how to communicate emotions by changing the shape or contours of the eyes or mouth, so much the better.
What I didn’t count on was everyone’s inability to draw only eyes or only a mouth: a full face had to accompany the specific organ. The rogue’s gallery that resulted was hysterical to look at, and opened up two areas for major discussion: some good-natured art criticism — e.g, “This face is missing a forehead,” or “This head has no chin.” — and psychoanalytic conjecture — “He looks very worried,” or “To me, she has that crazy look in her eyes.”
I had always dreamed of holding our weekly ElderSparks class outdoors but one thing or another always interfered. One Thursday in mid-October, however, the weather was so gorgeous, and the trees so resplendent with fall color, that we couldn’t possibly stay inside. Abandoning that day’s lesson plan, I unpacked the markers, pastels, pencils, crayons, and paper, arranged the residents around a table on the patio, and posed the figurative question, WWMD? or, “What Would Monet Do?” Were we going to labor over details and accurate rendering in our drawings or celebrate our emotional response to the autumnal display?
For each student, the answer was different. Sylvia’s condition had deteriorated over the last few months, and this once-vibrant fiber artist now found herself lost and confused. Dorothy struggled with the shape and colors of a planter that challenged her normally dense and obsessive style. Ruth drew the same regal head of a woman that she always does no matter what the exercise is — a subject whose significance I have yet to explore at length with her. Jeff definitely got what the program was all about.