Artful Aging

How churches are developing community partnerships to provide creative therapy for seniors with Alzheimer's and dementia

by Melissa Huff

He hadn’t recognized himself for years. Sometimes he couldn’t even remember his own name. With a pencil clinched between stiff fingers he carefully retraces the sketch of a tall, slender gentleman with a milk chocolate complexion and sparkling eyes dressed in a dapper suit; a cap propped upon his head. Then he dips his brush in the pigment and paints with bold watercolor strokes. The art therapist praises his efforts and holds up the portrait. He examines the image and his own name scrolled at the bottom. “Who is that?” she asks. Suddenly, his serious expression changes to one of utter revelation, “Well, there’s only one Ronald Jones so that must be me!”*

The way we see ourselves, and how we perceive others see us, shapes our very identity. Yet older adults with Alzheimer’s disease experience a cognitive unraveling of the memories that weave together their sense of self. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s, and this number is expected to increase exponentially over the next 50 years. As our older brothers and sisters in Christ struggle to recall their own names, histories and relationships, how can we remind them of their true identity as children of God?

Thankfully, two churches in Alabama are responding to the overwhelming needs of seniors with memory disorders by providing person-centered daytime care that incorporates expressive arts programs. They have partnered with VSA Alabama, a nonprofit arts organization serving people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. The South Highland Center, a ministry of South Highland Presbyterian Church, and McCoy Adult Day Care, supported by the United Methodist Church North Alabama Conference, provide seniors with weekly visual arts, music, and drumming activities led by professional teaching artists. Most of the instructors are licensed creative therapists and certified drumming facilitators who are trained to assist older adults with dementia by accommodating their physical and emotional needs and assessing their individual progress based on wellness goals.

Seniors who participate in therapeutic arts activities gain a wide range of benefits including improved mood, socialization, self-esteem, self-confidence, ability to focus, and energy-level as well as reduced anxiety and agitation. According to Mel York, director of the South Highland Center, even non-verbal clients enjoy these benefits. During music therapy classes, he says, “Their faces light up! Their eyes are brighter. And they are clapping, smiling, and humming and swaying to the music … It is over the top!” As Betty Lee, program director at McCoy Adult Day Care, simply puts it, “Music is a language everyone understands.”

Artists trained in therapeutic techniques are experts in providing a supportive atmosphere that persuades even the most resistant individuals to join in the creative process. Judy Poole, executive director and deaconess at McCoy Adult Day Care, says that even clients who are hesitant to participate in other activities will join in drumming. “I guess there is just something innate that makes people want to create their own rhythm,” she says. Walker Wright a drum circle facilitator with VSA Alabama and founder of Rejoicing Rhythms encourages everyone to join the drum circle, even if they have never played a percussive instrument. “Our drum circle at McCoy encourages everyone to join and has been a wonderful tool for building community. During one session, a participant with dementia became so relaxed that she spontaneously recited an African fable that she had learned as a young girl while the drum circle supported her with the rhythm. Quite astonishing!”

Creative therapies foster not only expression, but also cognitive, physical, and social stimulation for older adults. For example, music therapy is not simply a sing-along but incorporates poetry, songwriting, and storytelling. It also helps mark dates, seasons and holidays. Many activities, such as painting, dancing, drawing, shaking a maraca or playing a hand drum, can improve motor coordination and mobility. In addition, creative choices abound, such as selecting colors, materials, subject matter, artistic methods, songs, instruments, and musical genres. By expressing ideas and opinions through the arts, older adults gain autonomy and self-confidence as well as improved socialization.

Creativity is often viewed as a gift that diminishes with old age, fading with failing eyesight or withering away as muscles atrophy and skin starts to sag. But for seniors who are willing to express themselves and try their hand at a new trick―whether writing lyrics to a melody, singing a familiar tune, painting a self-portrait, or drumming to their own beat―it is never too late to become an artist. Ada Sims, a client at McCoy Adult Day Care, said of her own experience, “The Lord will give you your creativity. I will start [an art project] one day and then he will send me more creativity to add to it the next day. Creativity doesn’t come all at once, you know.” To her amazement, a collection of her artwork was exhibited and sold at an exclusive showing by VSA Alabama.

While researchers have long established the health benefits of participation in the arts, many hospitals, healthcare providers, and churches are just beginning to embrace integrative approaches to wellness. Although these Birmingham-area churches are committed to providing comprehensive day care for seniors, neither would have had the personnel or artistic expertise to implement a therapeutic arts program without the partnership of VSA Alabama, a nonprofit affiliate of the Department of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. VSA Alabama trains and contracts with visual artists, musicians, drummers, and creative therapists to provide programming for adult day cares, hospitals, schools, and community groups. Through their ArtPartners program, seniors also have the opportunity to showcase and auction their collaborative artwork at an annual public event.

Mel York insists that strong partnerships require everyone to be flexible and accommodating as they work together to accomplish shared goals. Judy Poole admits that at first she and the other staff at McCoy Adult Day Care were expecting the clients to create artwork that could be hung to beautify the blank walls. The art therapist explained that emphasis should be on the creative process rather than the end product. Once the staff understood this, they began to embrace the therapists’ goals and techniques and to recognize how the older adults were benefiting.

Older adults who stretch their creative muscles and reclaim their identity leave a legacy of beauty to future generations. The arts are a powerful way for us to glorify God and proclaim His power to the next generation, even into old age. (Genesis 1:27; Psalm 71:17-18).  When we hold up the mirror of the gospel for those with dementia, giving them opportunities to express themselves through the arts, we are empowering them to reclaim their true identity as children of God.

*Adapted from the poem “Well, that must be me!” by Allison DeCamillis. Courtesy of VSA Alabama and McCoy Adult Day Care.

 This article won an Honorable Mention for Reporting and Writing: Professional Resource at the 2014 Associated Church Press Awards.

Note: Patient names are changed to protect identity.


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