On May 3, the Dakota County Healthy Communities Collaborative hosted Living Longer: The Power and Possibilities of Aging and the Arts. The objective of this educational and interactive symposium was to discuss how a growing body of research within the neuroscience community states that engaging the brain in challenging and creative activities is an essential part of aging well.
The forum and speakers examined the research, provided personal stories about the impact that the arts have on older adult’s lives, and inspired listeners to consider the variety of artistic options that can be incorporated into the work they do with older people. Many of the audience members were from social service agencies and other facilities and organizations that specialize in working with older adults.
JFS counselor and art therapist Shannon Nixon was a featured presenter at the event. Shannon addressed current research and highlighted the potential positive impacts of the in-home art therapy program she leads at JFS including improved mood, lower blood pressure, improved brain function, decreased stress and anxiety, and over all better physical health as reported in a study by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) entitled Staying Engaged: Health Patterns of Older Americans Who Participate in the Arts.
Program participants receive eight free in-home visits over the course of two to five months. Additional visits will soon be available to purchase for eight-session graduates. The cost of the visits will be based on household income. During Shannon’s visit, an art medium is used to facilitate self-expression, communication, and psychological healing. The focus is more on the process than the product.
Shannon worked with a graduate student at the University of Minnesota during the spring semester to evaluate the art therapy program. The student conducted personal interviews with current program participants, adults 55 and older with mental health concerns including depression, isolation, Alzheimer’s or dementia, and/or anxiety.
The goals of the therapy program were improved mood, sense of accomplishment, and improved overall sense of well-being. The results of the evaluation support research findings regarding the benefit of creativity and art therapy.
Sense of Accomplishment/Self-Esteem
All of those interviewed reported an increased sense of accomplishment and self-confidence. They expressed feelings of security and pride because they “have something to show.”
“It is giving me more confidence, it has helped me to take focus off some of the negative things in my life and try to redirect that energy into something positive.”
“When you accomplish something, you feel good, or you feel better than you did, so yeah… and I think for me, it is important that not too much time goes by between visits.”
The program requires a high degree of individual attention to the client’s needs based on their interests and what feels engaging and supportive to them. It also requires significant client engagement. Those surveyed indicated their renewed interest in art.
“[it is] definitely helping me think that it is okay to make art again and it doesn’t have to be perfect, it doesn’t have to be all those restrictions we put on ourselves, at least I can do it for the fun of it.”
More than half of the clients surveyed reported an overall improvement in their mood.
“She makes me feel like I can do something. When she leaves I always feel better than when she came and I hang on to that.”
Dealing with Depression and Isolation
The art therapy program also helps participants tolerate and process negative feelings better and provides a space for socialization through conversation, interaction, and activity.
“After Shannon leaves, we (my wife and I) talk about what she and Shannon did [that day] and what they are going to do next time they meet so after this ends, they will be done and there won’t be anything else, so that will be a sad day…”
The evaluation found that the clients who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s are able to remember and anticipate the art sessions.
Over and over during the evaluation, clients and caregivers expressed their desire to keep the program going.
“I don’t want this to end. I have come to really depend on that contact [with Shannon], somebody who loves what I love, who is knowledgeable. It is special, that someone wants to come and do this.”
The JFS in-home art therapy program is currently made possible by a grant from Bigelow Foundation. “When a program is funded with grant money, it’s future is always uncertain,” said Aging and Disability Services Director Chris Rosenthal. “We would love to move the funding for this program into our annual operation budget. It is a highly effective tool in our work with seniors.” Gifts to this program can be made here.
If you or someone you know may be interested in the in-home art therapy program for older adults, contact Shannon at (651) 690-8904 or by email at [email protected].