Do you remember when assisted living facilities and retirement homes were called old-folks-homes? I do. In those days elder care facilities did not have the programming or quality of care that many places, at least in Vermont, offer today. We didn’t know as much then as we know now about aging, dementia, and Alzheimer’s and I’m afraid the care was often less than what any of us would want for ourselves or our loved ones.
I remember my mother taking me as a child to the Jewish Home for the Aged with my Girl Scout troop and several times alone with my guitar to sing for the residents during holiday seasons. I sang Joni Mitchell and Peter, Paul and Mary songs to the octogenarians and their caretakers. The room smelled a little like rotting leaves on a forest floor in November. It was a slightly sour, mildewy smell that I can call up with the memory as if I had just smelled it yesterday. I recall how grateful the residents were to have me sing to them. How they clapped along with the songs, even the slow ones. They beamed at me and kept touching my face or holding my hand so tightly I could barely extract myself to make a beeline for the door. They were old and scary and I dreaded the next holiday season when I might have to visit them again.
In the car on the way home after one such visit I asked my mother, “Why do they cry?” My mother probably said something like,”They miss their families” or “They miss the days of their youth.” It was so hard for me to witness this other world inside the “nursing home.” I would dream about this place numerous times before moving out on my own. The dreams always left a hopeless, horror like feeling upon waking. My own grandparents were very young looking and lived at home until they died. I never thought of them as old and swore I’d never grow old and end up in one of those places.
During my studies at Expressive Arts Florida Institute, I was introduced to the work of Fay Wilkinson and her video, “Visible Voices” – Through the Looking Glass. The video follows Fay, a Registered Expressive Arts Practitioner, as she worked with seniors in two long term care homes to explore depression through expressive arts making. You can check it out here.
I think that this video changed my life. I had never wanted to work with an elderly population in the past. Tainted from my childhood experience, I thought the work would be depressing. After seeing the healing journey Fay’s elderly clients took from the beginning of the film to the end, and the sheer joy that was expressed by everyone, I knew that I had to give it a try.
Then my very intelligent, eloquent father was diagnosed with geriatric aphasia; an acquired disorder usually caused by brain damage from a stroke or getting hit on the head which affects communication and a person’s ability to speak and understand others. Apparently it is also just another one of the afflictions associated with old age. Like socks in the dryer, my father’s words that spun so beautifully inside his head were getting lost, or were coming out garbled or mismatched. Up until this time, I had never thought of my father as old. He is, at 83, physically fit was always sharp as a tack. Though recently as more and more of his words disappear he gets more easily flustered and confused. Suddenly I realized that my father, who lives 1500 miles away from me, is one of those octogenarians. It broke my heart and compelled me to act.
As fate would have it, an opportunity opened up for me to do an internship within a facility that services a memory loss population. I learned so much working with this population and found that I love this work and most importantly, I love working with these people.
I have now been offering expressive arts sessions and groups with memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s clients for a little over a year. I am so thankful that I have found this work because it is some of the most rewarding and fulfilling work that I do. The creativity and happiness that art brings can make all the difference in the life of a loved one who has been progressively in decline.
The multi-modal approach of expressive arts has proven to be a powerful tool for treating memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. More than giving this population something pretty to look at or an exercise to keep them busy, it stimulates the brain. It stirs memories and can bring language back into the life of someone who struggles to speak.
Studies show that engaging in the arts gives back to Alzheimer’s patients, in some part, what the disease has taken away. It stimulates the senses, can trigger dormant memories, and encourages conversation. Whether they’re viewing or creating art themselves, people with the various forms of memory loss can use it as a form of expression. (from Jennifer Wegerer’s article, Why Art Therapy is good for the Brain)
I have been offering an ongoing expressive arts group for the residents at the Ethan Allen Residence in Burlington, Vermont for the last year and a half. This group is consistently the highlight of my week. Words can not express the joy and sense of fulfillment I experience working here.
Art heals the maker, the viewer, and the facilitator too.