Prescribing art for older people
In this interesting article Ciara Leeming illustrates yet another way in which art can enhance our well-being and health.
Isolated or vulnerable older people describe how through reconnecting with their creativity they have managed to add quality and meaning to their lives.
Prescribing art for older people
A programme developed with GP practices connects residents who may be frail or lonely through art workshops
London’s historic Dulwich Picture Gallery launched its older people’s programme, Good Times, in 2005.
Terry Harris was looking after his ailing mother when the surgery that ran his carers support group referred him to an art programme with a difference.
Several years on, the 72-year-old attends monthly sessions at London's historic Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is partnering with doctors to reach out to older people who may benefit from working with artists.
Harris says: "I'm one of the more mobile members of the group and can still drive and get about. But others who live alone or may be disabled see their outing to the gallery as the highlight of their month, when they get a chance to chat with like-minded people living in similar circumstances.
I've always drawn and painted as a hobby, but some have never had the chance to do anything like this. Creative thought lifts the spirits out of their normal round of television and self-centred contemplation."
Despite relying entirely on donations and grant funding, the gallery, which was founded in 1811, has been involved with outreach programmes for 20 years. In 2005 it launched its older people's programme, Good Times, partnering with 65 organisations to take art workshops into the community.
Developed in collaboration with GP practices, the Prescription for Art offshoot connects with residents who may be frail, lonely or busy caring for loved ones, but do not attend regular pensioners' or community groups.
Surgeries and, more recently, the memory clinic at Kings College hospital – can refer patients for free creative stimulation at its art workshops.
The programme is so successful that it now has its own co-ordinator, a team of volunteer helpers and a rota of artists. Sessions, attended by up to 20 participants at a time, have included silk painting, lino printing, glass painting, sketching and clay work. Wide brushes are used for those whose eyesight may no longer be sharp and large brushes suit arthritic hands that find it difficult to grip smaller tools.
A 2010 review by the Oxford Institute of Ageing of the Good Times programme said: "[The gallery] sees no reason why older people, even if they have never been involved in any art before, even if they have physical or mental disabilities, should not be able to tackle similar sorts of creative challenges as do other adult groups, with a few adjustments to make certain aspects easier. The participants were often surprised by the quality of their own work."
The refreshment break is a key part of each two-hour session, with tea and coffee served in cups and saucers along with fresh fruit and sometimes cake baked by group members. Leftovers are sent home with the participants, who may not always eat well.
The social support is also important: two women who realised they live on the same street now visit each other, and the group signs a card when someone is unwell. On one occasion, the gallery was alerted that a participant was in hospital after a nurse found him upset that his family did not know where he was; the only "family" he turned out to have was his art group.
Activities can involve anything from bunting making to plate decorating.
Another man continues to attend the sessions despite slipping into dementia and hardly speaking. That day, after he returns home, is the only time his family can communicate with him.
Gillian Wolfe, director of learning at Dulwich since 1984, has pioneered its creative outreach work. She says: "I think it works well because of the way the group is treated when they get to us. The building and environment are beautiful, there are no steps, we meet them at the door and everyone is really lovely to them.
"I think they also enjoy being defined as a creative person rather than as an older person, and the social aspect is very important. But these people are amazing and running this programme has definitely enhanced our lives even more than it has theirs."
Harris has now lost his mother but he continues to attend the sessions. "In a way I'm part of the entertainment because I can move around the room and talk to the various people," he says.
"It's wonderful to get to know people and hear their stories, and to have something else to talk to friends and family about. I feel so blessed to have this place on my doorstep."
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