Arts therapy is a veritable gold mine of relief and joy for many, especially senior citizens, with benefits not just for those suffering the neurocognitive disorders that can come with aging, but for those coping with feelings of isolation or depression.
“Alzheimer’s (and) different types of neurocognitive diseases affect more the left hemisphere (of the brain),” says Robert Whiteside, creative arts therapist at Jewish Senior Life’s Jewish Home of Rochester. “We find the right hemisphere, many times, is stimulated by the creative process, music, the arts, dance.
“Such things in many people are still very much intact. If you’ve had the opportunity to see the movie ‘Still Alice,’ you’ll see that even though a person seems like they’re an empty shell, there’s really quite a bit of life left in them,” Whiteside says.
Arts therapy provides a way for seniors and their families to reconnect, says Mary Fazio, director of Marian’s House, a day program through Jewish Senior Life for folks with neurocognitive disorders.
The house held an art show in the spring to showcase the creative pursuits of people in the program. It also gave families an opportunity to meet the art therapists who work with their loved ones.
“We had people that cried,” Fazio says. “They just couldn’t believe that their loved one had that much going on inside of their head, that they were capable of doing those things.
“Then, we have people that have never done any kind of art in the past. … They just can’t wait, they love doing it, so we were able to tap into an area in their brain that is still really functional, and it’s something that they can do,” Fazio adds. “They can’t set the table, but they can paint, or color, or draw, and things like that.”
There is a difference between art therapy and art as therapy. Whiteside is a licensed creative arts therapist with the State of New York. He went through a graduate program at Nazareth College to pursue a second career.
“My first degree was in fine art from RIT, back in the ’70s, and I am continuing to be a studio painter,” he says.
What licensed art therapists do is one on one. They help the client resolve a situation and improve their quality of life through art, Whiteside says.
“That’s where art therapy comes in, by offering assessments that are guided by a qualified therapist that understands how to interpret them, and what the next step might be to bring them out of whatever situation is denying them the life they deserve.”
Joyce Kliman is a professor of arts therapy at Nazareth College and a supervisor at the school’s Art Therapy Clinic.
“Art therapy integrates the field of human development, visual art and the creative process with modes of counseling and psychotherapy,” Kliman says. “Art therapists are master-level professionals that are licensed in New York State as mental health counselors.”
Art therapy helps people experiencing loss and pain from losing their homes, freedom of mobility and cognitive function.
Music therapy is a separate but related field. A board-certified music therapist uses music interventions.
Research has shown that live, in-the-moment interventions of singing, moving and listening meet the needs on an individual basis for their residents, says Regina Dennis, a board-certified music therapist with Jewish Senior Life.
“For example, if I’m playing music for somebody … say they’re agitated, and you start off playing … you kind of meet them where they’re at, and then you slowly decrease the music, and they’ll follow you where you are in that music,” she says.
A Music and Memory program at Jewish Senior Life started about a year ago to enrich existing offerings in music therapy. It addresses emotions, cognitive activity, anxiety and depression, Dennis says.
“Those are some of the biggest things that the music helps with because it also stimulates a lot of memories,” she says.
Residents may not be able to tell her their name, for example, “but they can sing all the songs, and they know the words to ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ or any of the songs,” Dennis says. “It’s also something that we use to connect family members and loved ones with our residents that may not necessarily know who they are.”
Fazio says that without the music and art therapy, Marian’s House would not have a program.
“It certainly wouldn’t be beneficial for folks to come here without these two elements,” she says. “They have become part of our day and have really been magic for us. I can’t even imagine providing care for people without offering these therapies, or art and music in itself.”
Lisa Maria Rickman is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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