Alzhiemer’s Patients Keep Spark Alive by Sharing Stories

By Jane E. Brody at the New York Times

Can you keep the love shining after your partner’s brain has begun to dim? Just ask Denise Tompkins of Naperville, Ill., married 36 years to John, now 69, who has Alzhiemer’s disease.

The Tompkinses participated in an unusual eight-week storytelling workshop at Northwestern University that is helping to keep the spark of love alive in couples coping with the challenges of encroaching dementia.

Each week participants are given a specific assignment to write a brief story about events in their lives that they then share with others in the group. The program culminates with a moving, often funny, 20-minute written story read alternately by the partners in each couple in the front of an audience.

Read the rest at:




Art Therapy and Parkinson’s Disease

I recently presented on Art Therapy for a monthly Parkinson’s support group that meets at Resurrection Hospital in Norwood Park. Parkinson’s disease is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that impairs motor function. The disease does not affect seniors exclusively; Michael J. Fox’s role as an outspoken educator and philanthropist living with early on-set Parkinson’s has made us all more aware of the wide reaches of this disease. However, the average age for symptoms to appear is 60, and the majority of people living with Parkinson’s disease are in their 70s and 80s.

I became familiar with the potential benefits of art therapy for people who have Parkinson’s disease when I was working on my thesis project in graduate school.  The drawing method I developed focused on making large drawings using both hands. Participants would fill as much of a 4′ x 4′ page as possible. Working large invites increased movement into the act of making a visual expression, and working bilaterally with the body stimulates greater synaptic activity in both hemispheres of the brain. I believe everyone can gain from drawing this way, especially older adults who experience a gradual narrowing of peripheral vision and declining sense of balance and those coping with motor system impairments such as Parkinson’s disease.

One participant in my thesis group had Parkinson’s disease.

When he drew to fill the large page, he used his entire body. His head bobbed and his legs twisted rhythmically to the music playing on the radio during drawing sessions.

The dyskinesia he often exhibited appeared lassoed into the dance of his creation. At the end of the hour, when he had filled the page with flowing, colorful lines making mountains or forests or farmland, his movements slowed and his teeth began to chatter. This was in stark contrast to the fluid and free gestures he made while drawing.

In my presentation at Resurrection, I went over the following list, which details ways that making art can help a person cope with Parkinson’s disease.

Find Pleasure: Art making should be enjoyable. There is no such thing as a “wrong” mark. Every expression is valid.

Experience Control: Art making is an activity in which the artist can experience choice (through color, medium, line, etc.) and control over one’s environment.

Value Individuality: Free creation can encourage spontaneity which can, in turn, improve confidence.

Express Oneself: An experience of slowed speech or flat affect can limit one’s ability to communicate. Art is another language for communication which can be done at the artist’s own pace.

Relax: Art making has been proven to lower blood pressure, reduce perseverative thoughts, and lift depression.

Improve Flow in Mind/Body Connection: In a relaxed state when focus is on the artistic expression rather than on the physical movement itself, motion can become more fluid.

Promote Concentration, Memory, Executive Functions, Improve Hand-eye Coordination: Art making increases bilateral activity in the brain. When drawing, one uses both the right and left hemispheres of the brain. This is a wonderful way to take greater advantage of mental resources.

After a bit of talking, we did an experiential activity, drawing large with both hands. In the discussion that followed, one participant likened the experience of drawing large to a tai-chi class she had attended. The medical community is looking at the potential for tai chi to improve balance and prevent falls among people with Parkinson’s disease, as discussed on Harvard’s Health blog.

My favorite comment came from a caretaker. She said that she had felt herself release so much stress while drawing, and she wanted to assure everyone that caretakers could also find therapeutic benefits from making art.

Many of the benefits of making art that I described above are supported by the work of Anne Atkin, who lives with Parkinson’s and has developed a therapeutic method of painting.  I encourage those interested to visit her blog and view this video of her sharing the painting method she uses in groups for people with Parkinson’s disease. Both are beautifully compelling.

Before I leave you all, I want to draw attention to an upcoming show: The Art of Living with Parkinson’s. The Parkinson’s support group from the retirement community where I work will have a large group drawing on display.  I hope to see you there.

Many thanks to Stephanie Maurice for editing this post.


Beyond the Link: Reflections on the Power of a Residents’ Newsletter

My previous post described the origins of Beyond the Link, the monthly newsletter written by residents of the retirement community where I am an art therapist. Beyond the Link is driven by the Porch Group, 6-12 residents who edit and write articles. Group meetings are open to all residents and submission boxes throughout the facility receive articles written by residents from any of the four levels of care.

Initially, Porch Group members and I were unsure how often the newsletter should be printed. There was no guarantee that we could gather enough content to sustain a regular newsletter. Quite a few initial meetings focused on ways to invite community involvement. Despite these initial concerns, we are pleased to find a regular succession of easily-filled papers. On many occasions, Beyond the Link editors have to make tough decisions about which articles to publish, because so much content has been submitted!

“Did you know that Kip used to play drums at the Aragon?!” Karen, a resident, asked the group with enthusiasm. She continued to explain facility resident Kip’s fascinating life, and suggested that he should be interviewed for the newsletter. “Great idea,” I replied. “Are you going to do that?”

My approach has been as group facilitator rather than leader.  It didn’t take long for residents to learn that if they brought an article idea to the group, I would ask them to write the article. Should the topic originator have challenges with writing, the group would look for a co-author who could help the idea come to fruition.

The Power of Recognition

A Person You Should Know is the headline used for interviews of fellow residents. Through these interviews, readers have learned the impressive biographies of their neighbors, including a variety of experiences and accomplishments. Interviews open up opportunities for conversation and further connection. Learning and sharing one resident’s story makes everyone a little more human.

Porch Group members have also harnessed the newsletter’s power to direct positive attention and strengthen all relationships within the community. One example of this is the fact that members recognize and thank exceptional staff within the newsletter. When a resident interviews a staff member, relational hierarchies shift. Staff members and residents are empowered through interviews. Bringing focus to the life of a care-giver outside of the working relationship can deepen the exchange between the care-giver and the resident. Residents gain more complete views of the staff members, allowing more avenues for connection and greater complexity of relationships.

An Ever-Developing Identity

The social identity plays an important role in overall health. Roseanne wrote a front page article about Frankie Lane, pop star and Lane Tech alumni. A few weeks after the article was published, Roseanne was stopped at the gift shop by a woman she did not know, who stated, “You’re Roseanne! You wrote that article about Frankie Lane and I loved it!”

When an article is written for Beyond the Link, the author gets a byline. The work of art is signed. (Residents may use pen names, but articles must be traceable by the editors to an author). By making the choice to use a pen name or one’s initials in the byline, the resident assumes the identity of journalist/author/artist. She may be noticed for the first time in this new role. Many newsletter contributors have assumed the title of journalist or editor with pride. One writer always signs off, “Your roving reporter, Sandy.”

The authors and editors of Beyond the Link exemplify the liberation, wisdom, and drive that carries us into our later years, as described by Dr. Gene Cohen’s developmental stages in the Mature Mind.

Making Special

As an art therapist, I consider the Porch Group to be an expressive art program; Beyond the Link is an ongoing work with multiple artists. This blog post is not concerned with convincing you that the writing of a newsletter is art therapy, but I will share my inclusive understanding of art as based on the writings of Ellen Dissanayake. Dissanayake is an anthropologist and scholar known for describing art as a natural and necessary act of taking something from the every-day context and making it special.

One of the first reasons the Porch Group developed a newsletter was to recognize losses in the community. Residents wanted a forum where public mourning could aid the processing of grief in the community environment, where death is not uncommon. Memorial poems, shared sentiments, and memories printed in Beyond the Link can make the passing of a friend or neighbor “special” for the author and for the readers. Everyday moments can be made sacred through sharing. A community can avoid becoming numb from the commonly-occurring tragedy of loss by noticing and sharing.

Condensing my observations about Beyond the Link to two blog posts has been difficult. As you read, know that I’ve barely started to delineate the newsletter’s benefits to the community’s residents. In closing, I wish to encourage anyone in a position to facilitate a residents’ newsletter to do so! Please contact me if you have any questions or want to know more details about how things have come together. Beyond the Link has been a success because I listened to the Porch Group members. Throughout the process, they have told me what they wanted; I asked questions and together we found answers. I saw and encouraged the residents to see their lives and experiences as resources, to be the authors and editors. They use the paper in the ways they need, ways that I could never have imagined. We have all been strengthened through the creation of Beyond the Link.


All names of residents have been changed to protect privacy.


Many thanks to Stephanie Maurice for editing this post and  niallkennedy for the photo.


The Residents’ Newsletter; Strengthening Community Inside a Long-Term Care Facility.

One of the expressive arts programs I facilitate as an art therapist in a retirement community is the Porch Group. The group’s members developed the idea for a residents’ newsletter which they now produce monthly. This is a retelling of the paper’s origin, wherein I begin to address some benefits provided by such a forum.

Identifying the need

During a Porch Group meeting in mid-2011, group member Karen* was verbally processing frustrations related to the passing of a woman with whom she used to share a table in the dining room. Her frustrations focused around the way she had dined with an empty chair for days before learning of the other woman’s fate. Karen felt an emptiness; she wished she had known sooner. More than that, she longed for a formal way to recognize her table mate’s passing. It had to be significant that her table mate had been there.

“Grief is an emotion that needs a witness in order to heal.” Author and performer, Elizabeth Wells writes about the importance of expressing grief as a part of the healing process.

Make friends of fellow residents

Others agreed. They also wanted to honor the passing of friends, acquaintances, and even those who remained “strangers” within the walls of their large home. “And what about those strangers?” Gladys said. “I want to meet the people who live next door to me right when they move in.” She then recounted how she got to know Vicki, a friend from a neighboring wing. “All I knew was people called her the crazy cat lady.” About six months after Vicki moved in, Gladys approached Vicki in the laundry room for the first of many conversations. “Yes, she has a cat, and she’s odd, but she’s a great story teller. She goes on walks and comes back and tells these wonderfully detailed stories of the people she meets. If I hadn’t gone out of my way to say hello, I never would have known that.”

“There’s also a large body of literature showing that people who are more socially engaged, are less lonely, have more social support and are more socially integrated are also doing better cognitively in older age.” Janelle Wohltmann, a graduate student in the University of Arizona department of psychology shares observations from her ongoing study of older adults using social media.

Meeting the need

Opinions culminated in the realization that there should be a place to share news, to get to know one another, to publicly honor those who had walked their halls and dined at their tables. “Why isn’t there a residents’ newsletter?” the members asked. “Let’s write one,” I said. After that, many of the group members energetically bounced ideas off one another, supporting and modifying each others’ proposals. It was like a spring rain had fallen on a garden that had been thirsty for so long. Chicago Bridge member, Christy Schoenwald, shares her experiences and observations strengthening community through visual arts.

To the presses!

By the next meeting, I had gained approval from the administration. The staff had been intrigued and supportive. The front page of the first issue welcomed a list of new neighbors. Another article introduced the paper and invited all residents of the retirement community to share their news by placing writings in submission boxes placed around the building. Also on the front page was a work of untitled prose written by a woman who only used the name “A newcomer.” The piece mused optimistically about the promise and possibility she saw in clouds and the sky upon her arrival at her new home. Chicago Bridge member, Katharine Houpt, writes about the meaningful engagement the act of writing can be for older adults.

The Porch Group produced their 16th monthly newsletter at the beginning of March. With every issue, residents find new ways to use the paper to inform and motivate, to honor residents and staff, to share grief and celebration. I will detail more of the paper’s successes and growing pains in my next posting.

*All names have been changed.

Thanks to Stephanie Maurice for editing this post and to Old Sarge for the photo.

Dancing Through Dementia: Review and Referral

This Dancing Through Dementia blog series was designed to introduce people to the field of dance/ movement therapy (DMT). It has focused on how dance/movement therapy can benefit individuals who are living with dementia and provided basic techniques to professionals outside of the field. Now you may be asking yourself, how do I find dance/movement therapy professionals, where is DMT available and how much does this service cost?

First a recap:

What is Dance/Movement Therapy?

Dance/movement therapy, according to the American Dance Therapy Association, is the psychotherapeutic use of movement to further the emotional, cognitive, physical, social, and spiritual integration of the individual. Dance/movement therapy supports that mind, body, and spirit are connected and that individuals should be treated in such a way that supports integration of these three entities.

Why should dance/movement therapy be used?

  • Encourages activation of memories and emotions
  • Creates awareness of unconscious experiences
  • Enhances neurological and physiological responses
  • Explores innate movement behaviors
  • Provides externalization of emotions and experiences

Now that we have reviewed what DMT is and why it is used, let’s talk about referrals. How do we know
when dance/movement therapy is an appropriate intervention?

When should a referral to a dance/movement therapist be made?

  • When talk therapy is at a standstill
  • When a client is having many physical symptoms that are not otherwise explained.
  • When a client speaks or complains about body specific symptoms
  • When a client has difficulty with verbal communication.

Where can dance/movement therapy be found?

Dance/movement therapists are working in nursing homes, rehab centers, and memory care facilities all over Chicagoland. Often times they are working in expressive therapy or program service departments. If you work in or your clients live in a facility, check to see if there are any dance/movement therapists employed there. If this is not the case, there are agencies and private therapists that can provide this service in facilities and in homes across the greater Chicago area.

How much does this cost?

Dance/movement therapy can be billed by some private insurance providers. Since most dance/ movement therapists are also licensed counselors or mental health professionals, dance/movement therapy can be billed as psychotherapy. Costs will depend on each individual therapist’s rate, but some will provide a sliding scale or a discounted rate.

Now that you know about dance/movement therapy and how it can be used in clinical practice, I encourage you to look for ways to integrate it with your current clients.

Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this post 

Celebrating the Holidays in a Retirement Community

As I leaned down to release the brake on Pat’s wheelchair, I realized my “bunch of purple grapes” costume might not have been the most practical choice for the Halloween party at the retirement community. I’d pinned twenty balloons to my clothing, making navigation difficult. Still, the crowd clapped and cheered as the Brain Fitness Coordinator in costume as “bunch of green grapes” and I twirled down the path during the costume parade. People who live and work in the retirement community and children from the neighboring school took turns showing off their costumes. The Dance/Movement Therapist led everyone in making his or her spookiest sounds and movements. I read a Ukrainian ghost story to the crowd. We all danced to Monster Mash. I reflected upon the event later, the first of the season’s holiday bashes. What is the role of holiday celebration in a retirement community? How can celebrating the holidays be a meaningful source of engagement, rather than entertainment?

Celebratory, not childish

Aging settings that promote culture change recognize the importance of choosing language that does not infantilize older adults. Holiday celebrations can easily go the route of becoming childish, so holiday event facilitators need to look for ways to maintain dignity and remember that this is a party for adults, while still allowing for a child-like sense of play that many people enjoy during the holidays. This consideration is important in many aspects of the event, including language, music choices, and decorations. At our Halloween event, the Dance/Movement Therapist encouraged the participants to create their own creepy environment, rather than passively listen to sound effects on tape.

Maintaining a sense of home

Each individual has his or her own set of cultural and familial traditions for the holidays. Event coordinators can encourage the extension of some of these traditions by being genuinely curious and asking questions about what kinds of traditions are important and which holidays they celebrate according to their religions and cultures. Maybe one woman loved to make handmade place cards for Thanksgiving dinner when she lived at home—can she do the same for her neighbors in her new environment?

Sensitivity to life changes

Many older adults experience sadness during the holidays due to memories of loved ones who have passed and shifts in role from host to guest. During group events, facilitators should be sensitive to emotions that may arise. In the middle of a Christmas carol during a holiday celebration last year, I noticed a woman crying in the back of the room. I sat with her and held her hand. I was careful not to ask her to stop crying, which could invalidate her feelings. The tears gradually stopped anyway, as she squeezed my hand and shared a memory of a family Christmas with me. What else should be considered during holiday celebrations?

“For more on meaningful engagement with older adults, take a look at Is It Art Therapy? Distinguishing Art Therapy from Arts & CraftsDancing Through Dementia: Application for non-Dance/Movement Therapists, and Intergenerational Programming: Linking Generations in Service and Knowledge.”
Thanks to Elyse Baylis for editing this post and Sarah_Ackerman for the photo.


Dancing Through Dementia: Application for non-Dance/Movement Therapists

For those of you who have read about dance/movement therapy and like what you have read, you might be wondering how you can apply some of this to your own work with people with dementia.
Here’s how:

Body-based interventions for everyone

Making the jump from reading about dance/movement therapy to using it is a challenge. Especially for individuals who have not embraced their inner dancer. Remember that we all have innate movement. Our breath and heartbeats are involuntary movements that we engage in every day. Here are some body-based interventions that you can encourage your clients, participants, or residents to explore.

  • Practice deep cleansing breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth) to decrease anxiety and stress.
  • Turn on music and clap your hands or tap your toes to the rhythm to encourage socialization and a sense of community.
  • Try asking the person to show you how they feel using a part of their body rather than using words to express this.

I’m not much for dancing; can I still connect with someone on a body level?

Yes! Body language accounts for over 50% of our communication in a sense we already use our bodies to connect every day. The difference is whether or not we are aware of it. Here are two examples:

  1. “I want to go home.” When a person living with dementia says this we often respond with a “therapeutic lie” to appease them. Instead, try understanding what home represents or why they want to go home. Often home is associated with feeling safe. Perhaps the person is feeling unsafe or lonely; try using movement to create a feeling of security. Touch may be appropriate in this case. Engaging the person in a group activity with music or dance can help to create that sense of security.
  2. “Mr. L won’t take a shower.” Showers can be a tricky thing. Consider how you would feel if someone started taking your clothes off and pushing you into the shower room when you weren’t expecting it. This is where reading a person’s body language can be invaluable. Facial expressions, clenched fists, and rapid speech can all be signs of anxiety or agitation. The important thing to remember is to allow the person to be themselves and to validate them. First, we want to control the anxiety by calming the person down. Perhaps let them walk a bit, take a few deep breaths, or even stomp out the anxiety or anger. Then allow them to take control of the situation. Try to explain what needs to be done and encourage the person to do it themselves or help you. You might find that the task needs to be revisited at a better time during the day when Mr. L is in a better mood.

Remember that our moods fluctuate throughout the day and sometimes for reasons we are unaware of. Individuals with dementia are just like you and me, except sometimes the moods and emotions that they experience are difficult to convey or express verbally. Watch the body language and you can begin to notice these moods and emotions in a different way. Recognizing these before they become an issue, can help to diffuse behaviors or extinguish them all together.

Here are a few other ways that you can start to connect with your clients, participants, or residents on a body level.

  • Pay close attention to body language. Try to get a sense of how the person is feeling based on his/her body.
  • Notice feelings that arise in you in response to the person’s body language.
  • Remember to reflect what you see. Do not imitate what you see.
  • Never force your own movement on a person. This is their time to be expressive and creative.
  • Always be authentic. Validate the person’s experiences and be true to yourself in relation to him/her.

Keep in mind that you are not trying to implement dance/movement therapy, but instead applying some of the basic techniques. It is recommended that you have a supervisor or colleague to process your experiences with, especially as you begin to pay attention to your clients in this new way.

Some people may benefit from a professional dance/movement therapy intervention. If you feel that an individual needs more assistance, here are some clues that you might need to refer to a professional dance/movement therapist.

  • Traditional talk therapy is at a standstill.
  • The individual has many physical symptoms that are not otherwise explained.
  • The individual speaks about body specific symptoms.
  • The individual has difficulty with verbal communication.

Dance/Movement Therapy for Anyone

Dance and movement can be enjoyed by everyone and this is therapeutic. Some people respond better to one creative art over another. Remember that dance/movement therapy supports the theory that mind, body, and spirit are connected and that individuals should be treated in such a way that supports integration of these three entities.

Dance/movement therapy believes that all experiences, good or bad, are held in the body and that every person has a desire to communicate no matter how buried that desire may be. Physical limitations, cognitive impairment, or two left feet do not prevent someone from participating in dance/ movement therapy. In fact, it is often people with these conditions that can benefit the most. Being in our bodies increases expression, communication, and self awareness which is useful for everyone.

Learn More

For more information on creativity and aging, read the following articles by Chicago Bridge members: “Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 2” by Katharine Houpt, and “Feeling Connection: Engaging the Senses in Dementia Care” by Christy Schoenwald.

This is the fifth installment of a six part series on Dancing through Dementia. Stay tuned for the last installment in December! For more information about basic dance therapy techniques, please read the second installment “Dancing Through Dementia: Basic Techniques.”


Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this article and supporting my journey.  Thanks to Spiess Life for the photo.

Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 2

An Opening Ritual

I sat with the participants of the art therapy group in the Memory Support section of the retirement community. Each person held a puppet created during past sessions. Ellie* turned to David, and made a sound and gesture using her puppet. David then repeated the sound and gesture he heard to Mollie on his right. Mollie repeated David’s sound and gesture to Beverly, and so on. I encouraged the participants to mirror only what the person directly before them had done, and allow changes in the sound and gesture to happen naturally. In this way, we focused on the present moment as a measure of success, accentuating the strengths of the individuals living with dementia as they laughed and exercised their creativity. The sound and gesture circle was inspired by a warm-up I learned in improv class. It translates seamlessly as a valuable opening ritual of the art therapy session, as group members validate each other through mirroring and create a sense of group cohesiveness.

The Creative Connection

Recently I described some other ways that taking improv classes has impacted my art therapy practice working with older adults, in addition to being a method of self-care.  While I know the specific connection between art therapy and improv is not one that applies to many people, the way my work and self-care have informed one another has led me to wonder about other self-care practices of people in helping professions. How, for example, might doing yoga influence a social worker’s day-to-day work. Natalie Rogers described the creative connection, “a process in which one art form stimulates and fosters creativity in another art form, linking all the arts to our essential nature” (Rogers, 2001). Rogers continued, “Using the arts in sequence evokes inner truths which are often revealed with new depth and meaning.”

How does self-care impact your work?

As professionals in the field of aging, how do your self-care practices influence your work? Do they help you to better understand yourself and the people with whom you work? For more on creativity and aging, see Dancing Through Dementia Case Studies and Building Community Through the Arts. For more on self-care, take a look at Self Care Made Simple.
*Names changed

Thank you to Elyse Baylis for editing this post and Johnia! for the photo.

Dancing Through Dementia Case Studies

The following case studies are brief examples of group movement therapy sessions. The individuals highlighted were participants in an adult day center in Chicago. Both individuals were diagnosed with dementia and were in the mid- to late-stage of their illness. They were both in the “lower functioning” movement therapy group entitled “Feelings in Motion” that took place once a week over a 7 month period.

Thankful To Be Alive

An 89 year old male client, Mr. L, acquired dementia due to a stroke and suffered from a severe depression. After the stroke, Mr. L was left wheelchair bound and partially paralyzed on his left side. Mr. L always wore his jacket and a golfer’s cap regardless of the temperature indoors or outdoors. On this particular day when Mr. L presented in group he was not wearing his usual jacket and golfer’s cap. He had worn it to the Center, but had allowed a staff member to remove it earlier that morning. At the start of the group, one of the other group members actually commented on how handsome he looked and in response he managed a half smile and expressed gratitude.

During the movement portion of the group which consisted of an exploration of different rhythms, Mr. L not only participated, but actually engaged his entire body to the best of his ability. Participants were asked to move their bodies to the beat of 3 different songs with 3 different tempos. The last song that was played was a violin adagio. Mr. L., a former violinist and conductor of his own orchestra, began gently moving his foot and hand to the music. He began to move his arm as if conducting the musicians. Mr. L. always favored his right side so this therapist asked him to try the same movement with his left side. This usually resistant man looked up with big eyes and moved his left leg. This therapist asked the same of his left arm and he proceeded to pick up his left arm by the wrist with his right hand.

When it came time to process at the end of the movement session, the subject of thankfulness came up. A group member pointed out that Thanksgiving was just a few days away and so we decided to each say one thing for which we were thankful. To my shock and disbelief, Mr. L who for six steady months had been in a deep depression and had a history of language associated with wanting to die, said he was “thankful to be alive.” Mr. L’s eyes began to tear up. This therapist thanked him for sharing and he smiled again.

Reflection as a Twenty-Five Year Old

Ms. E, a 94 year old client, displayed typical symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease. She had severe memory impairment, was not oriented to time or place, and repeatedly checked her purse for her ID. On this particular day, Ms. E was in a group consisting of seven females.

After a brief body warm-up which included a check-in of each body part, the group was invited to pretend that the space in front of them was a blank canvas and their arms were the paintbrushes. The therapist played soft classical music in the background. Ms. E, a classically trained pianist and very artistic creative woman, was so enthralled in the painting process. The therapist could see the wheels in her head turning as she painted the air in front of her. After the movement portion came to a close, the group began processing what had taken place. This therapist asked what people had painted and Ms. E proceeded to explain this beautiful scene in her mind.

Ms. E. had painted a boat for the group to go on a cruise. She was then asked what her favorite part about that cruise was and she said “the fresh air and the reflection in the water.” The group was invited to feel “the fresh air”. Many members closed their eyes and took a slow deep breath. When asked what she saw in the water Ms. E replied that she saw a reflection of herself at twenty-five with her man’s arms around her waist. As she explained this, tears began to form in her eyes and she hesitated for a moment. Other group members were invited to share memories of loved ones. Ms. E concluded that she felt good about the memories even though they brought tears to her eyes.

For More Information

For more general information on dance/movement therapy please read Dancing through Dementia: What is Dance/ Movement Therapy? This is the fourth installment of the six-part series, Dancing Through Dementia. To read more about dance/movement therapy please stay tuned. For information on other forms of creative art therapies read Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 1 by Katharine Houpt and to see how the arts can build community please read Building Community through the Arts by Christy Shoenwald.


Thank you to Kristen Pavle for editing this article and to S Lymath for the photo.


Lessons Learned from Improv and Art Therapy: Part 1

Art Corner

I tap Harriet* on her shoulder until she raises her eyes to meet mine.“How are you?” I say loud enough for her to hear.“Half left, half right, otherwise fine,” she says.“Would you like to come to art?” “Yes!”

This is our weekly ritual before the open art therapy group I facilitate on her floor of a retirement community. Harriet is a woman of few words, but I soon found out after starting the group about a year ago that she is a very prolific artist when provided with materials. At first, she arranged cut pieces of brightly colored paper into abstract collages. She seemed to enter a state of flow while she worked, and seldom spoke during the group. In recent months, Harriet began experimenting with other art materials and methods, including working with colored pencils, found objects, and clay.

Other Art Corner group members also work fairly independently, each intently focused on the artwork in front of them. I make art as well during the group, to promote a non-hierarchical atmosphere and to create response art as a nonverbal method of witnessing art processes. During a recent group, I looked around the table and questioned whether making art side-by-side was enough to foster a sense of community. Were we a group, or were we people who happened to be sitting at the same table?

Response Art

Rather than intellectualizing, I looked to my own art process for the answer. I began to move my pencil on one of two small pieces of paper in front of me. I drew a person’s profile, who appeared to be staring at the small blank page to the right. I almost began intellectualizing again as I wondered what to draw on the blank page on the right, when I heard one of the lessons I’ve learned during improv classes in my head. I looked at the person I’d drawn, and asked myself what that person was feeling. Then I drew another person’s face on the other sheet of paper, creating a facial expression in response to the first, just as I would let my scene partner’s emotion affect my own in an improvised scene.

Harriet looked over at my two drawings of people, then at her collage of paper and clay objects. She spoke: “You’re into human beings! I’m into mess!”

Harriet then silently arranged all of the group members’ artwork on the table, so that it formed one large collage. The two profiles I’d drawn framed her “mess” as if it were a conversation between the two of them. Another artist’s drawing of a smiling sun was positioned above. Suddenly the group felt cohesive, rather than simply people working autonomously around a table.

Improv as Self-Care: More Than an Escape

Self-care is an important way that people in caregiving fields can avoid burnout.  My favorite self-care practices are collaging, yoga, and taking weekly improv classes. Improv is not just an escape from the daily challenges that come with my job. As I’ve learned about improv over the past seven months, I’ve found the “rules” of improv complement my practice as an art therapist, as they do many fields and did in the Art Corner session I described above.

In my next article, I will further explore the ways I have found that practicing improv has enhanced my art therapy practice with aging adults.

For more on expressive arts therapeutic practices, see Erica Hornthal’s Dancing Through Dementia series, Christy Schoenwald’s take on art therapy versus arts and crafts, and my past articles on creative writing as therapy and exhibiting artwork.

Thanks to Elyse Baylis for editing this post, to my improv teachers and classmates, and to admitchell08 for the photo.  

*Names were changed for the client’s privacy.