Caroline Edasis, Manager of Art Therapy, Mather LifeWays

In recent decades, many in the aging services field have recognized the transformative power of the arts in care for older adults with cognitive and/or physical impairments. 

At Mather Lifeways, art therapists facilitate creative expression and connection for residents of skilled nursing, assisted living, and memory support care settings, built on the belief that self-expression through the arts is a fundamental psychosocial need and a vital component of well-being. Our art therapy programs are built on evidence-based research that shows engaging in creative expression promotes social connection, brain health, and physical and mental well-being as we age. 

Self-expression and creative engagement in the context of a supportive, therapeutic relationship can enable older adults, including those living with physical and cognitive impairments, to experience enhanced purpose, self-actualization, and connection.

Our art therapists identify each resident’s strengths, abilities, interests, and needs, offering art materials suited to support each individual. Moving beyond “cookie cutter” arts and crafts activities, art therapists offer personalized art experiences that enable residents to connect with, and express, personal meaning. The materials, tools, and prompts offered are designed to best address the strengths and needs of each individual. Here are a few examples from our programs:

  • When offered detail-oriented tools like pens or pencils, a woman living with cognitive impairment and aphasia became frustrated, struggling unsuccessfully to produce written language. Yet when offered fluid acrylic paints, she created large, abstract patterns with free, graceful gestures.

  • A woman living with dementia and macular degeneration had never engaged in art-making due to vision loss and frequent sleeping during the day. When offered large brushes and thick red and black paint, however, she was able to see her marks more clearly, painting bold, abstract patterns paired with vivid titles depicting childhood memories and recurrent themes of automobiles, trains, and faces.

  • Another resident living with dementia often declined to make art, pacing around the memory support environment and anxiously asking for her parents. The art therapist facilitated a successful creative experience by offering blank postcards and collage materials, inviting her to talk about her missing relatives and create a postcard to send to them.

  • One long-term care resident often stayed fairly isolated in his room, declining to attend many social events or art groups. The art therapist found that the resident loved talking about passenger ships he had seen as a boy, but his dementia and hand shakiness made it difficult for him to create realistic paintings of these scenes. The art therapist collaborated with him to create a stop-motion animation video using a cut-out photograph of a passenger ship placed on top of his painting of the water, depicting the ship moving in front of the New York skyline. The animation was combined with a soundtrack of his voice describing his memories of seeing and hearing the ships as a boy.

These examples illustrate how art therapy is an essential component of strengths-based dementia care. Even as cognitive and physical abilities are lost when dementia progresses, creative expression strengths, including singing, spontaneous poetry, art-making with colors, shapes, and lines, and creative movement often remain intact as powerful resources and avenues of communication.

Over the past two years, we’ve collaborated with academic researchers from the Northwestern University Department of Communication Technology. The research team has worked alongside art therapists within assisted living and skilled nursing care settings to explore the role of technology in empowering older adults. The interdisciplinary research team introduced new technologies, including an interactive art sharing frame, as well as commercially available technologies such as iPads, GoPro cameras, touch-screen monitors, projectors, and smartpens.

By integrating innovative technologies into our art therapy programs, we provide more tools for self-expression and sharing of meaning that highlight residents’ existing strengths. These interactive technologies enable art therapists to gather multiple forms of expression within an art therapy session, and link them together to create a rich multimedia artifact of the creative process. 

The technology may aid in the creative experience itself; for example, enabling an artist with late-stage dementia to create marks more easily by using his finger directly on a touch-screen surface, rather than dipping a paintbrush in paint. The technology may provide new ways for residents engaged in art-making to add further meaning to the initial art object through linking additional media, in the form of spoken words, music, or text. Linking multimedia content in this way allows artists living with cognitive impairment to revisit meaningful moments, reconnect with artwork in subsequent sessions, and share “in-the-moment” meaning with the interdisciplinary care team and family members.

Integrating technology into the art therapy program allows residents to share stories and personal meaning through various media, make decisions about who they want to share meaning with, and engage their broader community in creative dialogue through their artwork. This ultimately encourages other community members to view resident artists as creative and engaged individuals, rather than as simply recipients of care. These new interactive technologies become additional tools in the art therapist’s toolkit, used to continue our mission of enhancing quality of life for the older adults that we serve, build stronger communities through cultivating creative dialogue, and challenge negative perceptions of aging and disability.

Our art therapists will continue to identify new ways to integrate technology into our existing creative practices so that in-the-moment meaning can be preserved, revisited, and shared.

Caroline Edasis oversees all art therapy programs at Mather LifeWays senior living residences. In 2015, the art therapy program at Mather LifeWays was honored with a silver McKnight’s Technology Award in the Dignity category for its use of stop-motion animation.