Building Community Through the Arts
The Challenges of Making Connections
Each day I work at the adult day center, I see people that are experiencing various forms of isolation. There are people with aphasia, whose words are becoming tangled or lost; there are those with Parkinson’s disease, whose voices have become a soft whisper. There are those with cognitive processing difficulties and simply can’t keep up with the social banter, let alone formulate a response. In fact, many of my clients who use English as their second language begin to revert to their language of origin, making it difficult to converse with others in the group. There are those who can no longer initiate actions for themselves or need every step of a project broken down for them. For each of these people social connectivity has become increasingly difficult.
Group Art Making
My goal for the group, as the art therapist, is to foster a sense of community. I want everyone to feel a sense of belonging; a sense of usefulness and connectedness to those around them. In order to achieve this, each person is asked to create imagery based on a unified theme, or work with the group on a singular art piece.
My client’s imagery and art work provides me with material from which to encourage both social and cognitive stimulation. These art pieces that are created, aid this population by providing an object to attend to. This is a key component in sustaining engagement; making memories and maintaining social interaction. At the end of our session, clients are able to hold up their works of art and share them with others so that they can be valued and witnessed.
Working in a group naturally creates an opportunity for communication and interaction. Using art enhances this experience for my clients by allowing them to participate and be “heard”, with or without the expectation or necessity of words.
The Art Experience
Recently, our group collaborated in making a totem pole out of papier-mâché. During the creation process, my clients helped one another overcome challenges; together they discovered how to affix the pieces to one another and give shape to our totem pole. They supported one another and the art piece as they built the totem. Each person had a role; each person was individually and equally important to the creation process.
The group completed the project together doing what none of them could have done alone. They experienced a sense of control as they made decisions on structural components and colors choices. They assisted one another, they congratulated one another, and they encouraged one another through each step of the project. The play and creativity that comes naturally in art-making allowed the group to become cohesive and joyful. Our sessions concluded by the group choosing to title and write an artist’s statement about their new creation. Each person was given an opportunity to be a part of the discussion. Below is their testament of strength.
Title: A Story of Strength Determination and Coherence.
This totem pole is unique like each one of us. It depicts our group. You wouldn’t normally see us together because we are from different backgrounds, but here, we work. Our totem has a dog at the bottom. He is slower and yet represents strength holding the others up. He is the chief. Next, we have our special totem bird that looks after the tribe bringing good luck and happiness, beauty and movement. Even when the bird needs stillness it brings us visual interest. The turtle is at the top. Each move that is made is slow, steady and purposeful. He carries his house with him for safety and is well liked by children. We all have our own privacy represented by this turtle.
They Are Not Alone
The creation of this art project reinforced to the individuals that they are not alone; it allowed them to metaphorically express themselves, as individuals and as a group.
Creating artistic opportunities is a way of allowing the person to be “heard” and becomes an antidote to isolation. Witnessing and discussing one’s art can give people a sense of control and allow them to reflect on their feelings. Each art piece composed allows the invisible to become visible and aides in the groups shared journey. Together a group can support and help one another in finding meaning in the present moment.
For more information on creatively engaging older adults, please read: “What’s To Fear?” – A Comedic Play about Aging by Avrum Krause, Creative writing for self-expression: Meaningful engagement for older adults by Katharine Houpt and Dancing Through Dementia: What is Dance/Movement Therapy? by Erica Hornthal.
*Much gratitude to Benimoto for the photograph and to Renee Bober for editing the article