Week 8:
The Flow of Creativity

Bostrom Fellow in Creative Aging

Frye Art Museum, Creative Aging Programs | Seattle, Washington

December 20, 2019

I saw a sea lion swim by me this week as I was waiting at my bus stop.  This is a fairly regular occurrence and I just can’t get used to it!  How lucky am I to be doing something as mundane as standing on the sidewalk waiting for my bus to arrive, and be able to look out into the water and see a little creature paddling along?  Where was I catching a bus to, you ask? Well! I got to do something particularly exciting up north with the Elderwise Adult Day Program.

I’ve discussed Elderwise in two previous posts (Week 3 and Week 6).  Elderwise provides creative and meaningful programing to adults living with memory loss.  I have participated in both their Outreach Programming where elements of Elderwise are taken to other facilities serving elders, and their Adult Day Programming which provides the full Elderwise structured program to older adults.

The Adult Day Programming has been such a pleasure to observe and participate within.  Every time I attend this program I find myself tearing up at some point.  A primary component of Elderwise is the dining room table located in the center of the room.  This table is a safe hub, a little home, throughout the day.  Before the beginning of every program, the table is set very intentionally.  A gorgeous center piece is laid out in the middle of the table, often times with elements of plants or crystals.  Nametags for all participants are then strategically dispersed around the table, positioning people where facilitators anticipate the participant will feel most comfortable.

A center piece is carefully created and name tags are set out around the table, waiting to greet everyone who sits down.

The structure of the Elderwise Adult Day Program begins with a social hour of coffee, tea, and snacks.  People trickle in, sometimes with their care partners and sometimes without, and are extended a warm hello from the program facilitators.  Paintings from the previous week are hanging on the wall to be admired throughout the day.

As she was being dropped off, a woman and her care partner spent several moments observing the artwork of the previous week.
The facilitator takes time to greet everyone as they arrive and get them comfortably seated at the table with a cup of tea or coffee.

Everyone gets cozy and comfy at their place around the table.  Shawls are given out if anyone is cold, tea and coffee is prepared next to a fresh piece of toast.  The facilitators may provide some prompting for conversation if it is needed, but frequently conversation is flowing and natural around the table.  Elderwise has coined this portion of the program, “the long hello”.  The long hello helps to lay a foundation of shared community among participants and set everyone at ease.

Following the morning social hour is artistic work.  Primarily the medium worked in is wet-on-wet watercolor, but sometimes can include clay or collage.  Light music is played in the background while people work and regularly a deep silence will fall over the room as people become engrossed in their art.

The day continues to unfold with a time for light exercises that feel reminiscent to me of movement connected to energetic flow.  As lunch gets set out on the table family-style, everyone sings some well known songs.  Lunch is eaten, then tea and dessert is distributed around the table.  While sipping on a warm cup of tea, there is a guided group discussion where everyone is given the opportunity to talk and to listen.  Programming then wraps up in the afternoon, care partners come to pick up their loved ones, facilitators clean up the space and debrief, the newest paintings are hung up on the wall in anticipation of the next week.

While the day has a definitive structure, it is balanced with gentle and flowing transitions. Movement from one portion of the program to the next feels absolutely seamless.  This is a big deal when it comes to working among adults living with memory loss.  Transitions can feel particularly abrasive and unnerving as memory loss advances.  Elderwise has fine tuned these pockets of shifting to feel gradual and as though its a natural process.  A large component to this ingredient is that while there is a structure for the program, participants know they will not be barraged or belittled if they decide to move to the beat of their own drummer.  It is entirely accepted for someone to choose to get up from the exercise portion half way through and go sit at the table while lunch finishes being set out. There are no qualms if someone feels like stepping out to use the restroom or move their body a little bit.  Elderwise is rooted in seeing people in their wholeness, in not viewing them as lacking memory ability but rather in respecting and appreciating the entirety of someone’s essence.  You are engaging with more than just this person’s physical and mental state, you embrace them in their spiritual and energetic entirety.  Elderwise has deemed this approach the Spirit-Centered Approach.  I know, that’s really hard to comprehend when its written down, but when you see it in person it makes so much sense.

I had been asked early into my internship to help Elderwise out by proofreading the manuscript of a book they are in the process of self publishing (how cool is that?!?!).  This book has been in the works for 15 years.  It describes in completion the many aspects of Elderwise programing and goes in depth discussing their created concept of the Spirit-Centered Approach.  Even with reading the manuscript, it was still difficult for me to conceptualize what this approach meant util I was able to observe the Adult Day program. That isn’t to say I would have described the approach any differently in the book, but that it is almost more than is able to be put into words.

My involvement with Elderwise this week was particularly cool because I had been asked to take pictures of the Adult Day Program so they could be included in the published book.    I love taking pictures but I have absolutely no formal training, just a Nikon that I use as an expensive point and shoot.  Even with disclosing this to my supervisors at Elderwise, they still wanted me to come in and try to capture a few specific moments of the programming. This was such an honor and an absolute blast.  I am perpetually moved by the Adult Day Program.  There is a purity and love that resides around the Elderwise table that is very unique.  Below are a few of my favorite shots.

I love love love how her little tongue is sticking out to the side.
Norm and Patty bursting with love and light as they discuss their paintings with one another.
Norm proudly posing with his latest creation.

An idea has been percolating in my brain throughout this internship.  I think that, on some level, all of these memory care programs that I have been involved with offer people a chance to embrace their inner child.  When participants are on the Woodland Park Dementia Zoo Walk seeing animals, looking at art with here:now, creating art through here:now and Elderwise, or singing along to musicians at the Alzheimer’s cafe, there is a different aspect of personality that is tapped into – a freedom of expression and playfulness that is welcomed into the present moment.  Perhaps it isn’t fair to extend the concept of embracing your inner child to everyone that engages in these programs, but I have certainly noticed that my involvement in these programs has facilitated a safe place for me to dance with my younger self.

My dad was a phenomenal artist, both on paper and with wood.  He specialized in custom architectural and ornamental woodworking for individuals, architects, and Millwork companies. Included among his countless jobs was the restoration of a secretary desk made for the White House, all of the carving in the renovation of the Chicago Tribune Tower lobby, and dozens of decorative pipe screens for organs which can be found throughout the world. His work was steeped in tradition, whether carving classical column capitals or fanciful cat tables.  I look at him as having been one of the greats for woodcarving within this century.  I found out a few weeks ago that located in a Seattle church were some of my dad’s hand carved pipe screens for an organ.  With this being my last full week in Seattle, I decided it was time to go visit them.

It turns out I had actually passed the church several different times throughout my two months here, I just never realized what was inside.  Sure enough, I walked into the chapel and saw a grandiose pipe organ with my dad’s carved screens.  I sat in that space for a long time.  I was alone in the chapel when a guy walked in and asked if it would bother me if he practiced on the pipe organ, to which I replied of course not.  I got to sit front row in an empty chapel and listen to this organ – my own little private concert.  I told the musician that my dad was the person who carved the screens on this organ, and he told me that by far this was the most beautiful organs in Seattle.

This organ is located in the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in Seattle. My dad hand carved all of the ornamental screens around the pipes.

Seven weeks ago when I attended my first Elderwise Outreach Program, a blank piece of white paper was placed in front of me so that I could participate in the program first hand.  I was so nervous to begin painting.  I didn’t know what to paint, I wanted it to be good.  I placed limitations on myself and my creativity before even beginning.  After having now had several other blank canvases placed in front of me, I’m learning that creativity is like a muscle.  The more that I practice letting myself create and think beyond judgements, the easier starting has become.  I’m learning how to have fun while creating and to adopt an orientation of curiosity rather than shame.  This is a skill that I wish to continue refining.  My dad would speak to me euphorically about the times in his life when he was able to create from a space of mindfulness.  I think that programs such as Elderwise and here:now provide the setting for mindful creativity to flow out unapologetically with abandon.

For more information on Elderwise, please visit their website: http://www.elderwise.org

Olivia Lohmann '20

Olivia is a psychology major and art history minor from Houghton, Michigan.