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senior and caregiver smiling with picture-book at elderly care home

Express Yourself: The Healing Power of the Arts for Older Adults

“Are you ready to get creative?!” art therapist Linda Erman-Strober asked a small group of seniors who were gathered in a common area at United Hebrew’s nursing home. Seated around a table laden with an array of artistic supplies, they glanced at the tempura and acrylic paints in a rainbow of colors, brushes in every size, scissors, glue sticks, markers and magazines. All the while, Big Band music played over a speaker. 

Linda explained that they were to going to create collages of images and words that conveyed how they felt in the moment. “Let’s focus on how we all feel today. Are you happy? Anxious or sad? Honor this moment and choose images that represent your current feelings.” Over the next 45 minutes or so, Linda and Kyung Bae, both licensed art therapists, worked closely with the residents on their collages. 

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The art therapy sessions fit with United Hebrew’s philosophy that art helps to keep residents engaged and motivated. Says Kyung, “Art therapy facilitates verbal and non-verbal communication for older adults, especially for those suffering from cognitive impairment. It’s a way to communicate how they are feeling and to express their emotions.”

Triggering memories, sparking conversation 

Collages are especially useful for older adults, Linda explained, because sometimes they aren’t  confident about what they want to express or ready to draw or paint their own visuals. “So, having magazines on hand to choose from is a good way to get the thought process started,” Linda said. 

Natalie Haas, 91, flipped through several pages of a magazine before she found what she wanted. Smiling, she ripped the page from the binder and carefully cut out two photos: a serene waterfront setting and a young girl sitting on the grass. Flipping through once more, she found magazine headlines that said “Enjoy all you love, inside and out,” and “Moments we miss.” 

Armed with glue sticks and felt tip markers, Natalie pieced together a collage. She added her own handwritten message: “I miss being outside more.” When asked why she selected those particular images and words, Natalie explained that she grew up in Newport, Rhode Island, and remembers her mother taking her swimming most days in the summer at Easton’s Beach.

Added Natalie: “I loved the water.  Now that I’m older, I’m less mobile. I miss being active outside.” 

As they worked, the residents talked more with each other about what they were working on. They described what they were seeing in the magazines, or talked about the colors they were adding. They nodded along to the music.  

Seated next to Natalie was Pearl Gokkes. She sang along to the song that was playing, Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” She talked with her tablemates about the song, noting that she remembered every single word. “I was just a girl when this song came out,” she said.

Music as well as art can help move the creative self-expression along, Linda noted. “Music helps to awaken the senses, reduce agitation, and facilitate the artistic process. It helps our residents connect to their past, trigger memories, and channel their emotions into their art.”

United Hebrew goes the extra mile to employ certified art therapists who have specialized training to use art to improve outcomes for patients. Throughout the art session, Linda and Kyung worked one-on-one with residents to help them understand the structure of the activity, while balancing their artistic freedom and helping to interpret what they were trying to communicate. 

Research has shown that the act of creating art in skilled nursing settings can help to reduce loneliness, isolation, and anxiety in residents. Art therapy has been shown to boost mental skills and mood and improve social skills. Sometimes, it just makes people feel good. 

Holding up her finished collage, Natalie beamed. “It makes me happy to remember growing up on the water.”