By Erin Partridge, MA, ATR, RYT, Art Therapist, Life Enrichment Coordinator – Salem Lutheran Home, Oakland, CA — Originally published in The Eden Alternative Blog
We spent a sunny afternoon on the Terrace arranging our recent artwork into a ‘gallery’ on the wall of the activity room. As we stood back and admired our work, I asked the Elders “so what would you think about painting a picture right onto the wall?”
“Oh, I don’t know if we could do that.”
“Let’s do it now!”
“Well, we have to decide what to paint. Blue is nice.”
After we settled on the idea that it was a possibility to paint on the wall, we started discussing what we should paint. We considered painting people or animals and then one person came up with the theme: “We really ought to paint California, since that is where we are.” I asked what parts of California and we talked about cities and landmarks, nature and people. We settled on the idea of a nature scene with all California native plants and animals.
A week later, I gathered five Elders around my laptop computer. Using Google image searches, we looked at photographs of different things to include in our mural. The Elders made all the decisions about which things to include, how big each element should be, and the composition or arrangement of the mural.
Once we were given the green light to begin painting, we projected the Elders’ design onto the wall and drew outlines of each tree, flower, and animal. Once the pencil outlines were complete, we were ready to paint. I poured out some bright blue paint and then asked an Elder if he wanted to do the honors. He stood right up and made the first brushstrokes onto the wall. Since then, when we talk about his painting, he says that it can be the way he settles disagreements in the future: “You know, I was the first one to paint our mural!”
Many Elders enjoyed coming and watching the mural evolve. When I looked down from the ladder, I saw their alert, curious faces looking back at me. We had conversations about the different pieces of the image and discussed color choices and painting technique. Very rarely did someone doze off while the mural painting was going on; they watched closely and talked about what they saw. They looked at the printed pictures of our original design and the additional source material. They asked questions about what parts come next or what colors were being used. Quite a few Elders have participated in the painting—including some who did not engage in any other art projects. One Elder promised me that she would do “one brushstroke.” After she painted one burnt sienna brushstroke on a redwood tree, she sat down and watched for 20 minutes. Then she stood back up and said “I did not fill it in the way you did” and reached for the brush. She painted for about 5 minutes and then handed the brush back to me. An hour later, I overheard her telling a family member that she had been painting the mural that afternoon.
The project has been such a novel experience that it seems to be making impressions on Elders long after the painting was done. “So what are you going to do with the mural when it is done?” asked one of the assisted living residents. The answer is in what has been happening since we painted it. Beyond being a way to brighten the end of the hallway, it has become a way to engage the Elders. It can be a wall-sized game of “I spy” or a starting point for a story. It has been the backdrop for a miniature restaurant which helped an Elder finish her first meal in a long time. It has been a way for mother and daughter to reminisce about a favorite animal. From start to finish, it has been a process of empowering those living on the Terrace —putting their words and actions on display and showing our whole community that living with dementia does not mean an end to expression and innovation.
Editor’s Note: Erin Partridge will be presenting about Art Therapy & The Eden Alternative at the American Art Therapy Association conference in June 2013