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placeholder January 4, 2016   •   VOL. 54, NO. 1   •   Oakland, CA
Senior Living & Resources
Erin Partridge, showing works by Mercy Center residents, says painting is more than something to do to pass the time.

Art can be therapeutic, empowering:
'I can still impact the world'

Skip Sahlin, 86, found new ways to express his creativity.

When Skip Sahlin moved to Oakland's Mercy Retirement and Care Center a few years ago, he had to leave behind a hobby he thoroughly enjoyed — building bird houses.

"I made well over 100 and they all had different designs," said Sahlin, who noted that "those different designs came from my imagination. But here I wasn't able to do it." Concerns were raised because certain art supplies used to assemble the birdhouses could be harmful to the other residents.

Instead of allowing those creative juices to dry up, Skip, 86, found another way to express his creativity without the toxicity. He is now a painter and acrylics are his paints of choice.

At a recent art show held at the Mercy Center Skip's paintings received a lot of positive attention. There was talk of taking the images from those paintings and putting them on greeting cards.

"It feels real good that what you do is accepted," he said. "I know I'm no professional but it feels good that people understand what you are trying to do."

According to scientific research the act of finding some creative outlet or further nurturing one's inner artist is good for a person's emotional and psychological health as they age. For senior adults tapping into artistic endeavors can provide some comfort as someone makes one life transition to another, said Karen Sjoholm, an artist and educator. She currently teaches courses and workshops through The Center for the Arts, Religion and Education-Graduate Theological Union, and The School of Applied Theology.

Those life transitions include retirement, loss of a spouse, loss of friends, physical decline, loss of one's independence or the onset of a chronic illness accompanied sometimes with depression.

Watercolor painting, like other creative activities, is more than something to do to pass the time. Discovering one's creativity has many benefits, such as helping one relax, reducing boredom, promoting self-expression, and in improving communication with others, Sjoholm said. Her art work, which includes artists' books, installation, and mixed media, explores memory, spirituality, the environment and social issues.

Art can be a stimulus for conversation, said Erin Partridge, an art therapist and life enrichment coordinator at the Mercy Retirement and Care Center, where art and art therapy classes are easily accessible to residents. "It's hard to start a conversation sometimes but art can be a way to make that happen." It's easier for people to open up to one another in an art class while they are sitting next to each other and that could lead to some sharing of what one is working on.

Art can also be empowering, Partridge said. "For many elders, as they need more help choices are taken away from them. But with art the older adult can make their own choices."

Some of the residents at Mercy Center work on or make a piece of art almost every day. Others make a piece every so often. The art room is a place not only for those to make art it also is a place for those who would rather admire art.

People who have never done art before discover that "Wow, I'm good at this," Partridge said. And on a larger scale making art is proof for some senior adults that "I can still impact the world."

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