In preparing for a Valentine-themed program at a nursing home this week, I knew that I had to keep it simple. The Director of Therapeutic Recreation had told me that among the 20-25 participants, most would have limited manual dexterity and some degree of cognitive impairment. Fortunately though there’d be staff members and aides to assist.

Whenever possible, I like making art or craft projects subservient to a larger experience. For Valentine’s Day, I wanted the residents to connect with the love they’ve enjoyed not just with others, but with pets and animals, places, interests, and prized possessions as well. Each was given 3” square red Post-it Notes I decorated with hearts on which to identify the objects of their affections.

More specific prompts included: Staff members? Close friends? Celebrities? Foods? Hobbies? Colors? Objects? Reading preferences? Countries? Regions? Former homes? Etc., etc.

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Out with the Old, In with the Bold

It’s been almost three years since I last posted, and for anyone whose life has been severely inconvenienced as a result, I apologize profusely :)  Much as I’d like to explain my blogging absence, I won’t — it’s complicated!

What’s inspired me to write again has been several recent visits to newly constructed independent-living facilities. I don’t know who designs these things but it must be the same person who specializes in mid-priced hotel lobbies, funeral homes, and mausoleums — environments meant to be restful, subdued, reassuring, and non-objectionable. Absent are any signs of life, creativity, or personal expression, unless one counts ersatz art of bucolic rural scenes strategically placed on hallway walls every 20 feet or so.

You almost want to set a gang of 16 year-old graffiti artists loose in a place like this.

To be fair, there are rooms — generally smallish in size — where arts and crafts programs are conducted. Tidy, clean rooms that lack adequate display and storage space and have all the characteristics of a school detention room. Why does one never see the art produced within those walls displayed as an ongoing, ever changing exhibit throughout the building? Why is art confined to a designated time and area in the first place? Is its isolation from the rest of life a major reason why the vast majority of residents never bother to participate in such activities?

Personally, I’d prefer to ditch the mud tones and faux traditional décor in favor of vivid colors, bold graphics, abundant natural light that helps both people and plants to thrive, and open studio work spaces where hobbies and crafts can be pursued at any time of day, and onlookers can kibitz to their heart’s content. How about a large expanse of painted fiber wallboard that becomes the analog equivalent of social media, with flyers announcing upcoming events, personal messages, articles of interest, and random art — the background setting for a mini town square if you will.

I can’t help thinking that the same creative spirit and energy that fuel artistic process hold something valuable for all departments in a facility — administration, maintenance, life enrichment, medical care, food service, etc. Tapping into that force field is a cost-effective way to turn a previously uninspired collection of living quarters into something vital and enlivening, the kind of place that anyone might be attracted to, no matter what that person’s age.


Elder U.

As I was preparing for an art making class at a senior home last Thursday, a resident asked if I knew where the manager was. When a nearby aide told me the request was coming from a 104-year-old, I couldn’t believe it: I told Eleanora she didn’t look a day over eighty. Later I found out that the reason she needed to speak to the head honcho was because she wanted to learn Spanish. Why? Because the United States was becoming a bi-lingual country and Eleanora wanted to be part of it.

I say ¡bueno! Go for it!

One of my nursing home fantasies is called Elder U. because it borrows heavily from a higher-ed model. It’s a place where everyone is accepted and works towards a “degree” in their chosen “major.” Courses of study are based on individual interests (or behaviors), and custom tailored to levels of cognitive functioning, whether it’s a fixation on folding napkins or a genuine love of, and appreciation for, history. Faculty and mentors would be drawn from staff, family members, and local volunteers with related expertise. Activities that are already in place — e.g., fitness, affinity and support groups, newsletters, outings, Bingo, etc., — can be redesigned with a little imagination as extra-curricular components of “campus life.”

The beauty of this scenario lies in bringing all parties together under a single, unifying vision, that of a learning community accommodating the widest extremes, and giving purpose to lives that are otherwise “just hanging in there” (as my elderly mother was fond of saying).

Seriously, how much would it take to satisfy Eleanora’s wish to speak Spanish? We’re not, after all, talking core curriculum requirements, standardized testing, or any accrediting association. And what if her dream were to end no sooner than the lessons began? Elder U. would still be there to engage and support her wherever she is.

We Have a New Winner

Whenever I do my Picture This workshop, in which participants create an abbreviated graphic novel* based largely on their drawings of faces in various emotional, mental, and physical states, one of the fun illustrations I suggest they try is that of a sexy person. Bonus points are awarded if the subject is male because that seems more challenging given our society’s gender stereotypes.

Until last week, the only candidate was this NSFW picture, drawn by a healthy woman in her 70s several months ago:

A Sexy Person


Today however, I wish to announce a new winner, an even older female who attended a lunch-and-learn program I led at the local community center where I organize senior activities. Note the muscular thighs and forearms, six-pack abs, tight-fitting shorts, and featureless face except for the phallic nose.


Gotta love it!


* I use the term to make it sound more grandiose than it probably is.



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 of 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 https://eldersparks.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/fall-highlights-part-5-off-broadway/ 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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