(Written by Sara Arthurs, staff writer for The Courier. Story originally published on Dec. 6, 2018.)
Seniors living at Birchaven Village are asked how they are feeling before starting art class, then after.
At the end, “just about always, they’re happier,” Birchaven volunteer coordinator Ruth Ann Hahn said. “They’ve laughed.”
Birchaven recently held an art show for its residents. Many have dementia and are participating in the Opening Minds Through Art program alongside students from the University of Findlay. The program, developed at Miami University’s Scripps Gerontology Center, pairs each senior with a trained volunteer who offers guidance but allows the artist to make their own choices.
Hahn and Angela Thiry, an activity aide at Birchaven, were trained on the program at Miami University before introducing it to Birchaven.
University of Findlay gerontology students have been working one-on-one with some of the seniors to teach them art.
Young children and seniors “absolutely” benefit from relationships, but there hasn’t been as much research about college-aged young adults, said Meredith Hawkins Pitt, who teaches gerontology at the University of Findlay. The university built a class around the project, with students meeting with seniors on a weekly basis. Only one of the students is in the health professions programs, with the rest in the art department. They’ll offer the class again next semester.
Thiry said the art work is like a bridge or a tool, helping build a relationship between the senior and the university volunteer. At the beginning they would “feel each other out,” but they soon became comfortable and were laughing and sharing, she said.
While the university students were working with a group of artists with dementia, Birchaven used a similar concept with another group of its residents. All the residents, including in independent and assisted living, have the opportunity to take art classes.
Becca Kowalski, a children’s book illustration major at UF, said the seniors would start out by saying, “Oh, I can’t do art,” but gained confidence as they went on.
Erin Spradlin, who is majoring in graphic design, said she saw the partnership improve seniors’ moods.
Stephanie Macke, an occupational therapy major, said occasionally it wouldn’t – the seniors would paint in darker colors, and said afterward that they were sad, but they were able to express it.
The students found the program affected them as well as the artists.
“You build relationships,” Macke said.
Kowalski worked one-on-one with artist Jalyn Thomas.
“She’s trouble,” Thomas joked, but then added, “it was fine.” And she intends to keep making art. “Oh yeah. …I like doing it,” Thomas said.
Kowalski, 21, said she and Thomas formed a friendship across the age spectrum and “gossiped a bit.”
Birchaven resident Frank Cosiano said when he first started art class he thought, “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.” But it was rewarding, and he soon realized, “That isn’t that bad.”
He said getting to know the students was “interesting.” And did he plan to create more art? “Sure.”
Evelyn and Normal Gannon also entered the art show.
“I think I’m still a kindergartner,” Evelyn said of doing art. She had a stroke and lost her ability to write, and still struggles after some therapy. But painting is “not hard,” she said.
Following the show, some of the art was auctioned, with proceeds going to replenish art supplies. Thiry said about half of the artists were really eager to sell their art. The rest said, “No. These are going to my kids.”
Anne Ilardi, 93, said the idea of auctioning her art was “exciting.”
She hadn’t painted before but her daughter, Deborah Meyer, pointed out that her mother had always been good with art and had created art around nursery rhymes when she was young.
“Oh, yes I did… I used to love to do that,” Ilardi said.
At the show, Ilardi chose to display a “deep sea” watercolor picture, along with another that involved dye scraping and stamping and was called “Bird of Paradise.” The display included a quote from her on the second piece: “Even I’d hang that in my room! …I don’t want to be egotistic.”
What was it like learning to make art?
“Well, all right. …It’s a thrill,” Ilardi said.
Hahn said the people who don’t have dementia will talk about anticipating the next class. Those with dementia may not be as able to anticipate, but they have the joy of experiencing it when the time comes, she said.
This approach especially helps people with cognitive deficits, she said.
“It’s all about enjoying life in the moment and creating something beautiful,” Hahn said.