Psyching the Zietgeist:
Current Culture Through a Mental Health Lens

Creative Aging at the Frye Art Museum

An interview with Mary Jane Knecht

Our Round Table group—Anne, Sam, Peggy and Judy—met for a conversation with Frye Art Museum’s Mary Jane Knecht about her Creative Aging programs. For five years, the Frye has been offering these programs for older adults with dementia. We learned about here:now, Meet Me at the Movies, and off-site pilot projects.

Here’s a summary of each of the program offerings:

here:now is an arts engagement program for adults living with younger-onset or early to mid-stage dementia. It comprises two programs:

*A six-session class in which they and their care partners (a friend, family member or other companion) view and make art. A museum educator and a teaching artist lead each class. The class includes an informal guided discussion of 1 or 2 paintings in the gallery, followed by art-making in the studio. At the end of each session there’s some social time and a snack.

*A twice-monthly gallery discussion tour in which people with dementia and their care partners can participate in a discussion of 3-4 artworks in the galleries.

Meet Me at the Movies is a quarterly program open to all adults but designed for people with memory loss and their care partners. Film clips are screened, interspersed with facilitated discussion about elements of the films, especially as they connect viewers with deep-rooted emotional memories. For example, a film clip of Ginger Rogers & Fred Astaire might stir the viewer’s long-ago memories of dancing.

Pilot projects: Creative Aging is partnering off-site with a continuing care community and an adult day program to pilot a project for those whose dementia has further progressed. Volunteers, sometimes college students in social work or museology programs, work one-to-one with older adults in art-making.

A hallmark of all the Creative Aging programs is the emphasis on the enjoyment to be savored from what’s happening in the moment. By creating an environment where present experience is valued, these programs allow participants, care partners, and leaders to connect in intimate ways. Women in particular are conditioned not to speak up until we’re certain of the right answer. People with dementia tend to more openly express themselves, and the relaxed, creative atmosphere of the Creative Aging programs provide outlets for them to express themselves and engage in facilitated art-making.

We asked Mary Jane what draws people to these programs. The beautiful thing about art, she noted, is that there is no right or wrong answer. Art can be a pathway to elicit conversation and share memories and stories from the past. These programs invite participants to recognize not loss but capacity, and allow them to connect in different, but meaningful ways. Films, naturally, are a wonderful way to stir memories of past experiences.

We thoroughly enjoyed our conversation with Mary Jane and our introduction to some of the many wonderful events and programs at The Frye, including the upcoming premiere of the documentary Speaking of Dying, which is about making end-of-life decisions. It’s on April 16 at 6:30 at the Frye auditorium.

For more information about The Frye Art Museum, click the following links:
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Round table: Fight or Flight and False Alarms

A conversation between Chris, Sam, Anne, and Judy

Our fight-or-flight response, and the fear that accompanies it, is designed to protect us from harm, but what happens when this response is triggered by an imagined threat?

Fear and the fight/flight response was the topic at our most recent round table discussion, where we shared our thoughts about the many ways we are exposed to threats – both real and imagined – and the anxiety this can create in everyday life.

Judy commented that since 9/11, we have lived in a militarized atmosphere of heightened anxiety and fear. Others mentioned that our media often reinforces this fear state by continuously broadcasting recurring images of chaos and violence, and this level of exposure drives the anxiety even higher. We all agreed that we can become inundated with these messages of fear from our TVs, radios, computers, mobile devices, and social media, without even realizing the effects. Chris added that this could contribute to a distorted perception of reality and thus create a hyper-vigilant atmosphere.

This reminded us of the parallel to working with clients who experience an excessive amount of fear and anxiety in their daily lives. When we are dealing with overwhelming anxiety, we can easily fall into catastrophic thinking and become even more anxious about what we imagine is going to happen next.

It wasn’t hard for all of us to be reminded of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the media frenzy around the few cases in the US. Although it is true that Ebola is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease, a lack of balance in reporting has led people to be afraid who are at a very low risk of catching this disease. This kind of fear has the potential to expand to include all infections, as well as other tragic events in the news, and a sense of personal helplessness can set in.

We thought of ways each of us deals with anxiety and treats it in our therapy practices, both with clients and within ourselves. Anne commented that having a safe space to work skillfully with fear and feelings that may be underneath it is work that has to proceed carefully in order to avoid increasing a client’s anxiety. Techniques such as orienting to the present moment experience, including reconnecting with one’s current surroundings, can alleviate anxiety because it shifts focus from a frightening imagined future or a painful traumatic past to the calm and safety of the therapy room.

Chris commented that we can’t be in fear and gratitude at the same time, so reminding
ourselves of what we’re grateful for can change our emotional state dramatically. We ended by noting how refreshing it felt to talk about ways we can avoid getting swept up in fear and agreed that there are things we can all do to help ourselves deal with the changes around and within us.

Posted on November 11, 2014
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The opinions expressed in this post are the views of the author(s) and don't necessarily reflect those of other members of the Women's Therapy Referral Service.