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How to Inspire Senior Citizens to Be Active
My Search For Arts Programs
My work with senior citizens has given me a few insights into some special needs. Creativity was my introduction to the elderly through a painting program I created. While working with them, I encountered a variety of problems they face daily.
It was when I first moved to this city that I began searching for ways to share my love of art in the community. I tried many places with little luck. I called a number of private schools and day care programs to see if they needed an art and painting instructor. I called the local arts council but they didn’t have a program for artists to teach in the public schools.
I had been lucky enough to be included in a program called ArTree in my former city. They worked with the local arts council to place artists with specific lessons in public school classrooms to enrich the arts programs there. It was a fabulous program that I had participated in for several years before moving. It was quite a shock to find this much larger city didn’t have anything of the sort in place.
Art Therapy For Senior Citizens
I called some after-school programs and was told that most of the after-school programs were generated through the city parks and recreation department. So my next call sent me to the community service section of the parks only to find they didn’t need me either. However, instead of just dismissing me they kept referring me to other sections within the parks community service. The next thing I knew I was talking to a woman who was director of a program providing a lunch program for the senior citizens. At first I was put off because I couldn’t see myself serving lunch, but she explained that the elderly come in the morning and play cards or sit and chat for a few hours before lunch and having an activity like painting might be helpful. As I listened to her talk about her program, I thought senior’s skill level isn’t that different from children and my same program could work for both with some modification. So I pitched her my idea. She listened patiently, asked a few specific questions, and said she would call back if any of the seniors she worked with were interested. By this time I had gotten so used to rejection that I was sure we wouldn’t hear from her again. To my surprise, she actually did ask the seniors and many of them were interested.
At this point we needed to get together, purchase supplies and schedule where I would go and at what times. It was laid out in 5-day week, one hour per site and 10 sites to cover per week, all before noon each day when lunch was served. I think the hardest part of this job was driving from site to site each day, loading and unloading supplies, etc. This program was for seniors who still live at home, who have some mobility to be able to come, if not in their own car, then on a bus, and who can function well on their own. For example, most could walk well with a cane, or even a walker, but very few needed wheel chair access.
“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough.”— Mae West
During these 14 years teaching watercolor painting, I encountered sweet kind elderly people with severe arthritis. One woman had her fingers all twisted up like pretzels but she still wanted to paint. Her main challenge was holding the brush. She got to where she would wear fingerless gloves to warm her hands and to stick the brush in between the fingers to hold it. It worked well. Where there is a will there is a way.
Many of the less severely afflicted arthritis suffers claimed that painting was so enjoyable that they didn’t even notice the arthritis pain and after a few months the exercise of the hands had done them a world of good. Their hands were more limber and they endured less pain when using them. That’s a good thing.
Would you go to a senior get-together place when you reach 60?
Other folks had some vision problems and couldn’t see the lines very well. I brought the paper already drawn for them to paint on. For these visually impaired, I found if I used regular white glue with a little dark blue watercolor paint mixed in, I could squeeze the blue glue in thin lines all over the paper. As long as the glue was thick enough and I prepared the paper well enough in advance for it to dry thoroughly, my visually impaired seniors could both feel and see the lines more clearly than just with pencil lines. I literally created Braille painting paper. And the finished painting looked a little like a stained glass window with the leading in between the colored glass.
Loneliness and Depression
I remember meeting one lady on her very first day at one of the senior citizen sites. Viola had been quite a painter all her life but with oil paints. Watercolor was a bit out of her comfort zone. She sat there staring off into space but I engaged her in conversation and asked about her family. She said her daughter had “dragged” her down there because she thought it would be good for her to get out of the house. The daughter worried that since her husband had died, Viola was wasting away. Then she began painting and told me all about her husband. As she did so, she smiled for the first time. He sounded like a wonderful man and she was glad to talk about him. She was a faithful attender from that day till the day she passed 5 years later.
Another similar story involved a whole family of children (8 of them) dragging their mother to one of my classes. After a year of painting with me, the 8 of them told me that I had saved their mother’s life. She had interest in life again and it was because she had a regular painting class to attend that she enjoyed immensely. I find that depression is a serious subject, and after a certain age you begin loosing people you are close to. It is a difficult thing to regain joy without something to put your interest in. I’m grateful for some that interest was painting with me.
I think the problem with loss of a lifelong partner is the loneliness. The house is suddenly huge and quiet. You have no one to talk things over with and all the bills or chores are on your shoulders. My mother has been widowed now for 25 years and I often wonder how she keeps so positive. My father and mother were only 60 when he passed and she has dealt with the grief like a champion. My hero. She has found things to keep her mind and hands busy. For many years she had weekly card game appointments with her widowed sister and two widowed aunts. Now that the two aunts have passed, she spends time creating quilts and gifts them to family members. I don’t think a single child, grandchild or in-law is without one of her fabulous quilts. She even went so far as to sign them in indelible ink so that we will all remember her. I'm not sure I would be able to handle the grief and loneliness as stellar as she has done, when my time comes.
There were many who painted with me that suffered from any number of forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s. One particular lady was a darling woman with obvious creative talent. Every single time she came (without fail) she shared her story of owning and running her own drapery and seamstress business. She often sported a coat she created with hand embroidery of a large needle and spool of thread across the back. It was adorable. Hearing the same story over and over can be annoying but she didn’t remember she had told me at all. As a matter of fact, she didn’t remember having ever come to my class the week before, or the week before that. Each week I heard the story again, but I found her so charming that I began preparing questions to prompt her to give me more information in the story. She actually loved sharing, and I began loving hearing it again. It was a sad day after painting with me for two years or so when the caregiver told me she wouldn’t be back. She was going to a special home where she would receive better care.
My painting program was not the only program for the seniors waiting for lunch. They had some very gentle chair exercises a couple times a week. There was an elderly generated band once a week that encouraged dancing and singing some oldies. During the summer, there were even some water aerobics classes available. Many would play cards or board games as well as sitting and chatting. It was a great program for people who need to get out and do something. If you want to know if there is something similar available in your town, check out your local parks department and see.
It was always a bitter blow to find one of my faithful elderly painters had passed away. I suffered the loss of dozens and dozens before my program was cut due to budget cuts with the city. However, I will always cherish my time with them. I don’t know how much I enriched their lives, but I do know how much they enriched mine. I will never be the same because of their sweet stories and genuine love.