Creating art holds many benefits for the artist, regardless of their ability, skill level, or age.
Residents at Splendido, an all-inclusive community for those 55 and better in Oro Valley, enjoy robust creative arts offerings that include a much-used, on-site art studio and a variety of hands-on art opportunities. Splendido is a Life Plan Community where residents live independently, and have access to comprehensive care in the on-site health center Sonora, if ever needed. There, art programming continues with innovative art therapy techniques designed to meet the needs of residents.
Using Art as Therapy
Pens that can record your voice. . . a collage of magazine cuttings. . . whimsical mosaic butterflies. . . all of these and many more creative projects are helping Sonora residents with Alzheimer’s and other dementias feel empowered, connected, and understood.
Art therapy uses the creative process to help people—including those living with dementia—express themselves, cope, or address concerns. Sonora residents enjoy regular sessions with art therapist Margaret Carlock-Russo, EdD, LCAT, ATR-BC. Margaret works with individuals and groups, explaining that group work adds a valuable component of social connection and support.
Here’s an example of a group project she does with residents in memory care: “I might use a collage exercise, offering a combination of cut images from magazines and other sources. The images are of people, places, and things, and we’ll include some textures and other pieces as well.”
She explains that the mere process of creating something can be especially valuable for those with dementia. “My groups in the memory care neighborhood of Sonora focus on empowerment and feeling a sense of purpose,” she says. “People working on an art project are making decisions about colors, shapes, and materials, and they may not have the opportunity to make a lot of decisions in other areas.”
For the collage project, Margaret will present the materials to the group, and, using guided imagery or a straightforward question, she’ll ask them to recall a major achievement in their life—something they are very proud of. She will then ask them to use the materials to depict that memory. “Art therapy is about sharing someone’s messages and what a person communicates; it’s never about the quality of their artwork,” she explains.
The group can then discuss their work and talk about their achievements depicted. “In memory care, it’s all about how they feel in the moment,” says Margaret. “We want people to feel supported by us and by the group. We have a lot of fun, but I also address a lot of serious issues.”
Sharing Stories through Art
Margaret and her colleagues incorporate technology into art therapy, with powerful results. They use smartpens that record audio messages to enhance a resident’s artwork. “We started using the ‘talking pens’ to add pre-recorded music, poetry, or readings to residents’ scrapbooks. Viewers can touch the pen to an audio spot on the page to hear the recording,” explains Margaret. Use of the smartpens has evolved as the therapists began recording residents talking about their artwork. “Some may not remember their project the next day, but we’ll include their recording with the art,” she says. “People get a kick out of hearing their own voices, and at exhibits, we’ve had staff and family members in tears as they listen to the pens—it can be so powerful.”
Several residents in Sonora are writing their memoirs. Margaret says, “Whether or not they can write, we want to record those memories. Then family members can listen—but we also use the recordings to learn what’s important to an individual, and then we can target an art intervention to those issues.”
Earlier this fall, residents, staff, and family members from throughout Splendido participated in an art project where they created dozens of mosaic monarch butterflies. The completed works will be installed throughout the community. “This project was derived to create connections within the community,” says Margaret. “It involved people from independent living as well as Sonora, and demonstrated that everyone has something they can contribute. It shows that people can have fun and do something productive and enjoyable at every stage.”
Margaret explains that through art therapy projects like those described above, residents in Sonora’s memory care neighborhood get a unique opportunity to communicate and contribute to their environment. “We’re helping individuals retain their autonomy and choices. We give them meaningful things to do,” she says. “I go home every day knowing that I’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”