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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.”
Continuing with my intermittent recap of the spring, I wanted to share this sumi-e drawing that was done by a woman at the Vassar-Warner Home in Poughkeepsie, NY. It was completed during one of Mill Street Loft‘s classes at this charming senior residence, but it wasn’t until the six-week program’s culminating art exhibit that I had a chance to talk to its creator:
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As D~ and I were hanging her painting, she explained to me what it was all about: magenta represented love; the bird figure, her son; the black lines, fighting with her sister; and the blue in the upper left-hand corner was the sky, symbolizing an upcoming trip to see her grandchild for the first time.
I wasn’t close to D~ because she missed a lot of classes and didn’t stay too long whenever she did show up. I therefore have no idea whether she consciously chose to depict her family dynamics when she first touched ink to paper. The image nevertheless became a vehicle for her to share her thoughts about a subject charged with deep, conflicting emotions. Here, within the confines of an 8.5” x11” sheet of paper, was enough material to fill a book.
June and July have been busy months, filled with conferences and two ElderSparks presentations, Mill Street Loft art programs for the elderly and adults with developmental disabilities, and planting seeds for new initiatives. In addition, I’ve started working privately with an 86 year-old woman whom I see two hours/day, two times/week, to bring fresh stimulation into her life.
As we get further into the summer, I hope to share some favorite “snapshots” from the past few weeks. Here is one of the more memorable to start:
June 6, I assisted at a workshop for Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers at the Vassar College art museum. It was a joint project of the Alzheimer’s Association and Mill Street Loft, and modeled after the highly regarded Museum of Modern Art program, Meet Me at MoMA.
The session began with a gallery talk introducing the group to three different works on display. Afterwards, participants were given twenty–thirty minutes to commune with one of the three pieces and begin working on a drawing that reflected their personal response. We then went upstairs where more supplies were available to complete the exercise.
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Lillian Goldsmith, ElderSparks co-founder, June 19, 1912 – May 16, 2011
The foreground figure was the base of a lamp in my parents’ living room that I always admired.