Art For Seniors
Yesterday, I visited a local care home for the elderly with a friend and helped teach an art lesson for senior ladies with varying levels of dementia. I’ve taught several workshops in person but have never done this in a care home setting. It was such a humbling and special experience that I wanted to share it with you here… Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take photos from the session but hopefully you’ll get a sense of my experience nonetheless.
Before the ladies arrived, my friend and I set to work and began by squeezing out splodges of acrylic paint on saucers, filling containers with water for rinsing out dirty brushes and finally, setting out coloured and ordinary drawing pencils onto the large art table.
Some of the ladies had to be ‘bribed’ with tea by the carers because they’d entirely forgotten their last painting session and needed some gentle encouragement. Soon wheelchairs and walking frames were wheeled in and ladies were helped to their place at the large table.
A few ladies continued working on a previously started piece (some had no recollection that the piece handed to them was actually theirs), whilst others were starting new artworks with the jolly theme of Spring. An ‘example’ was prepared and some suggestions made.
One lady never spoke unless she wanted her brush cleaning and new colour added. She painted regardless of the pencilled guidelines which of course, was no problem at all. She seemed unaware (?) of what she was painting but slowly she relaxed and smiled to herself at times. She was totally wrapped up and absorbed in her painting.
When she’d finished her ‘Spring’ piece, we gave her a blank piece of paper and she drew some shapes with pencil and then painted her shapes in with random colours and strokes. I stroked her softly on the shoulder and called her by her name and asked her if she’d enjoyed her painting session and she said that she had. My eyes filled with tears as our gaze connected and when she smiled at me it made me wonder who she’d been before the dementia set in and did she know who she was anymore and still how special she was?
Another lady was probably in her late 80’s and a little impatient to begin with. She needed some encouragement and guidance as to the particulars of what to paint. I drew a tree for her and she went ahead and filled in the general foliage shape with green paint. I suggested she paint in some cherry blossom and she did this in her own unique way and then a yellow sun was added.
Three of the ladies had been primary school teachers and one in particular chatted a little to us about her teaching days and some of the children who’d been in her charge.
All the while, we had music on in the background and one lady hummed or sang throughout our session whilst simultaneously beaming! I was captivated.
A little bit of surprise to me was how blunt and to the point the ladies were. They seemed to have no concept of social etiquette and it reminded me of how young children are - very much of the moment. I loved their genuine spirit, honesty and lack of social awareness or embarrassment - it was so, so refreshing!
Another lady, told us about half a dozen times that she wasn’t the artistic one in her family, like her Dad but rather her mother (said in the present tense) was the artist. Her butterflies and sense of colour were beautiful.
For another, an owl was drawn and coloured in with such care and attention - she was a little surprised to see her creation when it was held up for her - upon seeing it in all it’s glory, her face lit up.
Daffodils, sheep and rolling hills were painted in by another lady and she too chatted from time to time and was engrossed for the whole session.
I’m not an art therapist or psychologist but I do know for that hour and a half, those ladies came to life! They smiled, laughed, hummed, sang and whatever their ‘end result’, they expressed themselves in a way that felt right for them. Their hand-eye coordination was well and truly exercised, along with cognitive abilities and the ability to concentrate. They made decisions about what colour to dip into, they engaged with each other and they decided where to apply their loaded brush onto the paper and seemed to relish in it. For women who are nearer the end of their life, art seems a perfect way for them to show their true personality and exercise their autonomy and decision making in spite of the dementia. One lady remarked that it had gone so quickly...
After experiencing this yesterday, it reaffirms my belief that we are all meant to embrace our creativity at any age and no matter what ‘so called’ ability we have. We are all here to create and for the seniors in our communities it’s no different than for you and I.