Empowering older people through art

This being the third Wednesday of the month, more than a dozen senior citizens — some wheelchair-bound — gather around a long dining room table for an art therapy session at Sunrise Senior Living, an assisted living facility for adults with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

As they take their places, artist Virginia Lago belts out the day’s plans. They will draw their hands onto a canvas then paint it. She hands out paintbrushes and squeezes blobs of acrylic paint onto paper plates.

Carol Holtzman, with the painted pumpkin she created during the last session in October, chooses green to start.

“We’re going to paint our hands?” Holtzman asks, smiling. “It’s going to be an easy project.”

Her humor reflects the day’s purpose. These once-a-month artistic sessions are intended to help relieve the stress and burden of daily living and the illnesses that often come in old age.

Jamie Wheeler, activity and volunteer coordinator at the Sunrise of Johns Creek community, said the monthly session is one of several offered to residents as a way to nourish their minds, bodies and spirits.

“This class is great because it improves their concentration and creativity,” Wheeler said. “Physically, it’s beneficial because it utilizes one’s dexterity. It’s also a great way for our residents to express themselves emotionally. At the end of the class, the residents are awarded with a unique piece of art and a sense of accomplishment.”

Anna Ford Smith, spokeswoman for the Georgia Art Therapy Association, said that art therapy with older adults has been gaining in popularity since 2006, when research by the late Gene Cohen showed that engaging in creative activity actually generates new brain cells even into old age.

Cohen, who died in 2009, was the founding director of the Center on Aging, Health & Humanities at George Washington University and had held leadership positions at the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Mental Health. He was considered an expert on what happens in the brain as it ages and on Alzheimer’s disease.

“His research really helped bring attention to the benefits of art therapy with the elderly and specifically the connection between creativity and mental health in the aging population,” Smith said. “For people facing the challenges of cognitive decline, art provides an alternate mode of expression when verbal communication becomes difficult.”

On this day, Lago expects no more than seven, but there are nearly twice as many. Despite Holtzman’s apprehension about the subject matter, Lago assures the group this session will be no less fulfilling.

“Have fun,” she says. “Write a name across it, something you’re feeling or a name of someone special.”

Holtzman jokes she’ll write arthritis across her hand.

“Can I do that, Virginia?”

The retired fourth-grade teacher, who refuses to divulge her age, has been attending the classes since day one. Lago, she said, is the reason.

“She’s very good and very patient and gets people to do things they never thought they could do,” Holtzman said. “She is fantastic, well-prepared, organized and encouraging.”

Lago, who has spent nearly her entire life painting school murals and decorating homes, said her time at Sunrise allows her to merge two passions: art and people, particularly the elderly.

With art as the main ingredient, Lago combines the healing power of paint and brushes with a lighthearted and easygoing teaching style. Her ability to quickly assess each resident’s capabilities, along with her gift of gab and sense of humor, makes for a soothing atmosphere.

“I love teaching,” she said before the start of class recently. “But here it is not as much teaching as focusing on each of them individually and making them feel good for an hour and a half. It’s important to me to be able to lift their spirits.”

Although Lago isn’t a licensed art therapist, she works at the community because she believes in the discipline’s healing powers. She says art heals because it allows us to express our fears and desires or as, Aristotle put it, “to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.”

Holtzman said Lago lets them work at their own pace. She offers pointers and keeps them on task when they forget what they were going to do next. She gives moral support.

Since the classes began a year ago, the seniors have created more than a dozen works of art — autumn leaves, butterflies, trees, flowers, seascapes, pumpkins, and a fondly recollected beach scene, singular subjects to keep it simple and easy to finish in one session.

Some they keep. Some they give to their children or grandchildren. And some pieces are displayed throughout the community.

What’s certain, Wheeler said, is residents “truly enjoy” the sessions.

“It’s great to see how excited they are and hear the buzz about what they learned in class,” she said.

Instead of adding more color to her hand drawing, Holtzman went for a more realistic skin color and shading to create volume. She didn’t add “arthritis” or any other word.

At 5 p.m., the session ended and the residents cleared the room. Lago lingered a while with Holtzman, who was determined to add a few finishing touches on that pumpkin.

“Perfect!” Lago told her as they finished. “Now it’s ready for you to sign. Always sign your work.”

As they said their goodbyes, Lago packed up her bag of tools and headed out the door. Until next time.

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