Psyching the Zietgeist:
Current Culture Through a Mental Health Lens

No One’s Favorite Topic..but a vital and important read: On Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Death and dying are high on the squick factor scale for most of us, and when we get right down to it, our ultimate fear isn’t of dying itself but of all that can happen to our bodies and minds months or years before we toddle off and vanish into the sunset. Perhaps we prefer to imagine that we will die in our sleep at 97 after completing a triathlon, but most of us who will be fortunate enough to live well into old age—fortunate because people in the last decades of their lives report the most satisfaction with their lives—will, in the end, experience a precipitous decline.

Reading the first half of Gawande’s book can be a somber excursion, but his beautiful, often lyrical, prose eases our way through the parts describing the grim history of our “care” for the frail elderly, the modern incarnation of which is assuring health and safety at the cost of autonomy, privacy and meaning.

In comparison, reading the second half of Being Mortal is an uplifting experience. Already there are scores of home-like living situations for frail people where the provision of privacy, autonomy and human—and animal—connections lengthen lives, motivate people to walk rather than waste away in wheelchairs and reduce prescriptions for all medications including those that render people confused and helpless. Gawande urges us to demand humanizing changes to all assisted living and nursing home environments and to insist that they change direction from fighting for longevity at all costs to fighting for what makes life meaningful.

Gawande’s latest book is laced through with intimate and moving stories of patients and of his own father’s decline and death and how they, and the innovators he learned from, radically changed the ways in which he conversed with patients close to the ends of their lives. In the final pages of the book he writes, “the aged…have priorities beyond being safe and living longer…the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life. We have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of our lives.”

by Peggy Shafer

Posted on August 7, 2015
Posted in Book ReviewsTagged ,


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.

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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