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:
(Click on image to enlarge.)
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.
(Click on images to enlarge.)
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.
Our second sumi-e brush painting workshop at the Vassar-Warner home produced an impressive collection of drawings by the residents who participated. Gone were the hesitation and fear that greeted the technique when first introduced two weeks earlier; instead, everyone dived in as if they were doing it all their lives — which was a pretty long time for some of them!
(Click on images to enlarge.)
Charlotte begins working.
The Vassar-Warner home in Poughkeepsie, NY was the setting two weeks ago for a workshop devoted to sumi-e brush painting. It was led by Jennifer Axinn-Weiss, a Mill Street Loft teaching artist and expressive arts therapist, who was filling in for MSL’s Artistic Director for Outreach Programs, Joan Henry.
Sumi-e was first developed in China almost 1500 years ago. Jennifer thought that its focus on the natural world, and interest in capturing the essence of a subject with spontaneity and as few strokes as possible, would be a good follow-up to our previous spring sessions. As an added bonus, sumi-e painting has a calming, peaceful energy associated with eastern meditative traditions.
If ever there was a need for such energy, it manifested before class even started. Residents drifted in while we were still setting up, and Rose, the 97 year-old woman who announced last week she would stand on her head to celebrate her 100th birthday, started having an anxiety attack. She couldn’t hear what was being said around the table and thought she was missing important instructions. Speaking directly to her in a loud voice from a close distance didn’t help either, so I communicated with her through writing and suggested she just be patient until class began and everything would become clear. That, together with a hand on her shoulder and the presence of TK, our teenage assistant, beside her, brought comfort. From then on, she took to sumi-e like an old pro and produced one drawing after another — even adding color and sparkles as the morning progressed.