Pioneer House resident Marguerite Severson proudly holds up her pastel drawing, created under the instruction of artist Lila Hauge-Stoffel. (Photo by Mary O'Reilly-Seim)
Carefully rearranging pictures of grandchildren and ancestors, residents of the assisted living facility made room in their small apartments to display their own original artwork. These watercolors, quilts and pottery were the result of a yearlong arts program at their long-term care center, Pioneer House, in Fargo. Designed by the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA), the Art for Life Project did much more than bring folk and contemporary fine artists to an assisted living facility. It measurably improved the lives of participants, visibly fostered a healthier community and innovatively addressed issues of eldercare.
Adults over age 65 constitute nearly 12 percent of the U.S. population. As the baby boom generation ages, this figure will likely rise to 20 percent by 2030. With almost a third of all state expenditures going to healthcare, and the vast majority of that spending attributable to the elderly, states like North Dakota with large senior populations can expect an increase in the number of citizens entering long-term care facilities. These seniors are at heightened risk for depression and other severe disabilities that require costly treatment. As a result, states are looking for ways to best support the mental and physical health of their citizens. The Art for Life Project shows how state arts agencies help state leaders and care providers attain this goal by using the arts to enhance the health and welfare of elders.
The inspiration for the project came from an NDCA apprenticeship in which folk artists Mary O'Reilly-Seim and Lila Hauge-Stoffel demonstrated natural textile-dying techniques for the elderly residents of Pioneer House. The presentation met with such enthusiasm that NDCA Folklorist Troyd Geist, in collaboration with the artists, developed a more extensive program for residents. Using funding from the National Endowment for the Arts' Challenge America program, along with local in-kind contributions from Pioneer House and state support from the legislature, the Art for Life Project organized a series of 35 participatory arts activities from storytelling to quilting to painting, each session offering an opportunity for residents to learn, create and connect.
Shaping Healthier Outcomes
The ability of the arts to improve the quality of life for residents of nursing homes and other healthcare facilities is widely documented anecdotally. As part of the Art for Life Project, however, NDCA sought to further explore the impact of arts in eldercare by capturing quantitative evidence. Working with a geriatric physician, a nurse, a professor of folklore and a statistician, NDCA developed an assessment tool to measure the effects of the program on the negative feelings that often characterize life in institutional settings. Survey responses showed that after eight months of arts activities, participants felt significantly less bored, less lonely and less helpless.
The project also distracted seniors, whose average age was 86, from their physical pain and stimulated their cognitive faculties. The traditional arts used in the program were especially useful in triggering memories while still encouraging participants to make meaningful decisions in their own work. According to Hauge-Stoffel, "The activities and the interaction with family, artists and other residents improved participants' concentration, renewed their sense of dignity and changed their physical stature. It reminded them that they are valuable members of a community." O'Reilly-Seim, a Pioneer House activities director, was impressed by the creative talent and enthusiasm she witnessed. "We as a culture tend to underestimate the tremendous potential that people of advanced age still have. Human beings need artistic influences all the time, and there is a measurable difference in introducing creativity into the lives of residents in institutional settings." As some of North Dakota's finest artists were engaging residents in traditional and contemporary art forms, they were also helping residents engage with one another. The project's community grew to include family and friends, who participated in the activities.
The project yielded such positive benefits for both the elderly and the artists that NDCA was eager to share the experience. Stories and statistics from the Art for Life Project were compiled in a 2003 publication, which was distributed to long-term care facilities, artists and arts organizations across the state. Working together, many enterprising artists and facilities continue to use the guide for securing funding and replicating the project, which is exactly what NDCA hoped would happen. "A small state needs to be creative about how it designs projects, to deal with them in a way that others can be inspired by them, empowered by them and take control themselves," says Geist. The state arts agency offers guidance and financial support for such programming through its Community Access grants.
In the end, what began with an apprenticeship has become a thread of inspiration and reinvigoration for numerous people, reaching deep within the hearts of Pioneer House residents and extending far beyond the facility's walls. One resident remarked of her watercolor, "I'm going to send this to my grandchildren to put on their refrigerator."
An extended version of this State Spotlight about the North Dakota Council on the Arts' Art for Life Project was also featured in Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging. Click here to read more.
Click here to download a PDF of this issue of State Spotlight.
The work of NASAA and of state arts agencies is supported and strengthened in many ways through partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation
deserves great art.