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.”

In South Brunswick, I was one of six artist/practitioners who led half-hour, mini-workshops for conference participants rotating in groups of 15-20. The individual and collaborative drawing I introduced evoked lots of spirited discussion and laughter; more to the point, the exercises were designed to be easily shared with a client or loved one for mutual fulfillment in a caregiving context — even by those whose early art career never advanced beyond paint by numbers.

(Click on image to enlarge.)

AIPP Exercises_892

Visual exercises on display during the AIPP conference.

My presentation also included two take-away quotes that are central to ElderSparks’ focus on creative play. One is from a book on acting, The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper Teaches the Meisner Technique, by William Esper and Damon DiMarco: “When people are spontaneous, they’re always charming. They’re interesting to watch because they’re really and truly alive; we never know what they’ll do next because they never know what they’re going to do next. That’s what’s so captivating about them.”

The other is this teaching story that can be found on the web with slight variations:

Many, many years ago, when someone who was feeling unhappy, unfulfilled, or ill went to a shaman, the first three questions the shaman asked were: “When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop telling stories?”

Another reason I wanted to share the second quote was because I was paired with Carol Satz, of the Garden State Storytellers’ League, as my co-presenter for the day. Carol introduced her storytelling by asking participants to reflect on the personal meaning we might find in our given names. In response, people shared stories that were not only extremely moving but also remarkable for the rich and diverse cultural exchange that accompanied them.

The narrative Carol told was based on Ernest and Elston, Laura T. Barnes’ book about a rooster who learns to value his own distinctive voice. Even though it was written for children and repeated three times that morning, it never failed to touch me. Once again, I was struck by the power of story — as opposed to advice or fact-based information — to address deeper human needs and desires, and to help bring about healthy change.

In July, I learned that the two of us received the highest marks in evaluation surveys following the conference.

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