A tale of art therapy in residential aged care
I am delighted.
I’ve just run an art therapy group in a psychogeriatric unit.
I’ve had an unusual level of support, with two whole entire art therapist helpers.
It feels like a dance. We three weave in and out of being with different aged care residents at different times, each with our own energy, skill and strength. It is an elegant Jane Austen era dance; maybe a minuet or a quadrille.
One art therapist sits
alongside a resident,
holding a eucalypt branch,
the resident slowly wraps wool around it.
One art therapist takes turns
with a gentleman
to add crayon dots to an ocean wave,
while he tells and retells
a story of escape from a shark.
One art therapist encourages
to arrange and rearrange fabric fragments.
We shift in and out of sound and silence. We pause. We listen. We swiftly seize whichever materials or processes might best help this person to find his or her unique expression in this moment. We perceive gaps and stumbles, ability and potential. We continually move into the physical and psychological spaces, to bring out the artist in everyone, wherever and however we can.
Afterwards, we return to the peaceful pink and green studio to debrief.
We explore our successes, our challenges, the qualities we brought to the art table and what we are learning. We make response art as we speak.
I breathe out.
Today, the work has flowed.
We somehow found instinctive, collaborative ways to encourage people with advanced dementia to connect with art making or art materials.
We facilitated people we haven’t previously met, some who are way beyond words.
We supported their sensory, spiritual and creative health.
We helped them connect with a sense of agency or control over one small segment of the overwhelming world that clatters and beeps in and around them.
Response art. My hand reaches out for a paper towel. Paper towels are an integral part of residential aged care. Dispensers are everywhere.
Today, I go really really simple. I don’t even use watercolour. I go for texta markers on one folded strip of paper towel. What will happen if I add water? Oh my goddess! Magic blooms from the mere paper towel.
Can I go simpler still? I make marks in grey – a few colourless rain streaks. I add water to this one too and an even bigger magic occurs.
Let me say, ‘Truly officer, I only used grey’. But I add water and other colours reveal themselves – pinks and greens (just like the studio). Did you know that adding water to grey texta unleashes colours? I didn’t.
Inside the plain grey texta
lives a world of colour
just waiting to be released.
Just add water.
The humble metaphor touches me deeply. The residents are stuck downstairs in the most ultra-locked of the locked units, trapped in their non-verbal or repetitive-memory zones, with little control over bodily functions or over anything at all. These residents, to the ordinary eye, look incapable of doing anything. They might seem to be not thinking or feeling. They might look like minimal grey streaks on the paper towel. But they contain surprise colours.
Just add water. Their colours emerge.
Just add water?
Well… there’s a massive amount of preparation, angst, empathy, processing, bracketing, inner work, outer work, practicality, forethought, post-thought, supervision, training, experience, trial-and-error, improvisation, courage and trust that pulses behind the scenes, contributing to the seemingly effortless ‘just add water’ magic. Yet, if you bring a whole-person-centred approach, hope, respect, belief in relational creative process, plus artistic and art therapeutic expertise …. Voila!
It is indeed a humble magic.
with love, art and soul from Sally
PS Here’s a link to other musings on Creative Ageing.