Used with Permission from: Sanford Health Sylvan Court
Used with Permission from: Sanford Health Sylvan Court

Many might not think of a nursing home as the most likely place to pick up a new art hobby, but the residents of Sanford Health Sylvan Court have been bucking expectations for years. 

That Canby, MN, facility hosts bimonthly art classes taught by a local artist. But it’s more than just a regular activity to fill the calendar — it’s become a community and a creatively therapeutic outlet, according to Administrator Jason Anderson. 

“They look forward to it,” Anderson told McKnight’s. “We have … residents that may be feeling ill, but they will make it a point to still come and do their art session. They really view it as a priority.”

The class has been running for nine years, consistently drawing around a dozen regular attendees from the nursing home’s roughly 45 residents.

Some of these seniors have had little to no experience with visual art before taking these classes, while others had been artists for years before living at Sylvan Court. What they all have in common, though, is a renewed sense of social connection and pride in their artistic capabilities, according to their long-time teacher — local artist Sarah Bednarek.

“Everyone works at their own level, and so their reactions are all different. But I think we always have a good time and visit or giggle and talk about memories,” she told McKnight’s. “Over the years we’ve done this, their confidence levels — every one of them — has felt pride in their work. A lot of them didn’t know they could even do this.”

Bednarek has a master’s degree in art therapy, but noted that the art classes at Sylvan Court differ significantly from that discipline, especially due to the residents’ needs for accommodation.

Residents putting their skills to use in a class session. Used with Permission from: Sanford Health Sylvan Court

Sometimes making those accommodations means something as simple as Bednarek sketching the outlines of a painting for residents who are feeling intimidated by a blank canvas — giving them something to fill in. Art therapists usually do not intervene in a patient’s art process, she explained.

Other times, residents need help with mobility or speech issues. One elderly artist was legally blind, so Bednarek helped her set up especially close to her canvas. That resident often painted from memory with a bit of guidance from her teacher when requested.

Bednarek was quick to emphasize, however, that a major part of why she enjoys teaching the class so much is seeing the senior artists building the confidence and independence to create and emotionally connect with their own art.  

“I’ve really enjoyed developing relationships with all the residents who come down,” she said. “It’s very satisfying for me to encourage them — when they’re willing to try something new in that stage of their life. I always tell them it takes courage.”

‘Elementary’ lessons

The lessons the seniors learn in their classes aren’t confined to those sessions either, Anderson explained.

Art created by the class doesn’t collect dust once it’s completed. The nursing home has set up a rotating gallery of 12 to 15 resident artworks. Each year, the senior artists also participate in a local community event where artists prominently display their work in the windows of local businesses.

The residents also put their art skills to use in another event commonly run by Sylvan Court — visits and collaborative art projects with local elementary schools. A common intergenerational activity is having the residents start an art project and send it to the elementary students to finish and decorate.

Overall, the art classes are a boost to residents’ lives, Anderson said.

“We deal, unfortunately, with a lot of mental health and behavioral situations,” he explained. “Sometimes a resident will go to the art class angry or upset but come back calm. And having that calmness for that resident is improving their quality of life … Interacting with students or interacting with Sarah — it’s something they look forward to … They might be happy and kind of on a high for the remainder of the week.”

Anderson acknowledges that it took years to build the relationships Sylvan Court has with local artists, schools and the community at large, but ultimately both the residents and the facility have benefited greatly from that effort. 

“I think it’s such an opportunity for other nursing home facilities to showcase what they can do in a nursing home,” he said. “When they [people outside nursing homes] see things like this, it changes their mindset to know that we can still age in our community — in a different setting, but age successfully and gracefully.”