“Art was intimidating for me,” says Pamela Atwood, Director of Dementia Care Services at Hebrew Health Care, “I was always told I couldn’t do it.” She smiles and points to a woman sitting at a table with Zentangles books and art, “until Finke taught me it’s about the process not the product.” Sure enough, it’s the process of creating patterns, doodling, or drawing from free association that has empowered and healed dozens of residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s at Hebrew Health Care, giving them a voice and a purpose. Many of these residents have never created art before, and some were showing their artwork for the first time at 100 Pearl St. Gallery.
One artist, Lillian Tugan, says the process of creating art brought back memories of her former home and garden. Her artwork, part of the Elder Expressions exhibit, consists of colorful lilies, conveying her bright, sunny disposition. Lillian herself was dressed in a pink coat and matching hat, “Art makes me feel like I’m young again,” she says happily.
Another artist, Molly Dressler, whose artwork includes spring flowers and a quirky carrot inside a banana peel (“I wanted to see what a vegetable and fruit would look like together,” she explains), says that art gave her peace of mind and helped her well-being. More importantly, Molly says art gave her time “one hell of a time,” she says, laughing.
While art therapy isn’t a traditional method of healing, Pamela argues it is just as effective, if not more so, because it is less confrontational than talk therapy. The creative process is soothing for participants, improves concentration and coordination, and can even go so far as to lower blood pressure. For elderly patients, art provides a venue for self-expression and mental stimulation, otherwise lacking in a facility. “When you do art, you forget everything. You’re in a different world. Your own little world,” says Helen, a 97-yr-old resident at Hebrew Health Care, doodling at the Zentangles table. “Mentally, it kept me on the right path.”
So, what is Zentangles, anyway? Think of it as yoga on paper. The activity improves mindfulness, helping people live in the moment, which is increasingly harder to do nowadays when we’re constantly inundated with technological distractions. The Zentangles patterns promotes relaxation and the end result is an ornate geometric product that Finke says is popular with art buyers. While Zentangles emphasizes the process of art for healing, the end product is a “happy coincidence.” The best thing about Zentangles is that anyone can do it and there are no mistakes. “I would draw as long as I could to calm down,” Finke says.
In addition to the anxiety-reducing results of art therapy, art therapy has some physical advantages, such as reducing pain symptoms and helping restore sleep patterns. But what Pamela, Finke, and the artists of Hebrew Health Care emphasize most is the aspect of being in the moment, focusing on the task at hand, and gaining perspective. “Working in the arts helps with that,” says Pamela.