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Self-expressed art therapy for seniors

Korky Vann Hartford Courant

Van Gogh, Michaelangelo and Da Vinci had epilepsy, Toulouse-Lautrec had a genetic bone condition that affected his growth and mobility, and Goya was hearing-impaired.

In spite of their disabilities — or maybe because of them — all created masterpieces.

“History has shown us, and research continues to prove, that when people lose certain skills, they often gain the ability to communicate through creative expression,” says Gay Hanna, executive director of the Society of Arts in Healthcare. “We’ve learned that art and creativity can dramatically improve older people’s quality of life and health.”

That’s the concept behind an art exhibit sponsored by the American Art Therapy Association being unveiled in Washington next month.

The show, “Creative Aging: Beyond Words,” features 105 artworks created in art therapy sessions by individuals ages 65 and older, many of whom have vision or hearing loss, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, arthritis and other physical challenges.

“The exhibit includes works that reveal how seniors cope with physical illness and cognitive impairment, loss of independence and mobility, grief and other challenges of aging, along with the strengths they’ve developed over their lifetimes,” says Megan Robb, curator of the show.

“It also helps the audience gain a unique perspective on aging and reflects how art therapy helps seniors improve their quality of life by providing a creative arena.”

Research shows that art therapy — the use of art materials for self-expression and reflection in the presence of a trained art therapist — is not only a creative outlet, but good science as well.

According to a National Endowment for the Arts concept paper released in July, NEA studies show that incorporating the arts into health care benefits both patients and caregivers. Art-related activities in nursing facilities, hospitals and hospices can help patients relax, socialize, find solace or express grief, loss and other emotions, as well as help rejuvenate caregivers experiencing depression, fatigue and burnout.

Some research has shown that patients engaged in creative activities require less pain medication and experience fewer bouts of depression.

“The arts have an extraordinary ability to enhance our lives, to help us heal and to bring us comfort in times of great stress,” NEA chairman Dana Gioia said when the report was released.

“We must reconnect the arts with the actual human existence that Americans lead, the journeys we take in life which lead us through hospitals, to hospices, to the end of life.”

Pieces in the show include watercolors, drawings, pastels, oils, acrylics, mixed media and textiles. Most are “outsider” art, a term used to describe works done by individuals with little or no formal art training.

One of the works, titled, “An Old Man,” was done by Richard Traczyk, a 78-year old Windsor, Conn., resident who has diabetic neuropathy, stroke and dementia. Traczyk’s work and six other pieces selected for the exhibit were created as part of the art therapy program at the Caring Connection Adult Day Care Health Center for frail elderly in Windsor.

The center, which features a large art studio and ongoing art projects coordinated by Julie Soucy, an art therapist and adjunct art therapy professor at Springfield College, has included art therapy in its program the past four years.

Traczyk’s acrylic on canvas self-portrait reflects an oversize head separated from a small, frail body by an exaggerated long neck. Amy Stuart, his daughter, says her father, a retired engineer, began to paint when he lost the ability to build furniture, garden and restore antiques — all lifelong hobbies.

“He used a mirror to create the self-portrait,” Stuart says. “As he was painting, he would comment on his wrinkles and age spots and say, `Who is this old man?’ He doesn’t talk much anymore about personal issues, but the act of painting gave him a way to express his feelings.”

Deborah Boemmels, Caring Connection coordinator, says identifying and implementing alternative methods for communicating thoughts and feelings are as important as providing skilled care. Traczyk’s portrait, she says, eloquently reflects his feelings on his cognitive loss and life changes.

“As people age, they are dealing with loss of independence, end-of-life issues and other difficult changes,” Boemmels says. “You can’t just treat disabilities.

“You have to find ways to relate to individuals’ minds, bodies and souls. Art therapy isn’t product-based; it’s process-based.

“It’s not about a finished piece of art; it’s about providing people with ways to cope with what’s happening in life through self-expression.”

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