The older adults in Dr. Raquel Stephenson’s art therapy session are painting. One non-verbal participant lights up as she experiences the tactile qualities of paint—its smell, touch, and feel. “These visceral interactions with the materials opened up a new path for communication with her,” says Stephenson. “Where Alzheimer’s Disease slammed shut the door of communication, art therapy opened up a new window.”
According to Stephenson, the power is in the art making process—in how the artist engages with the art being made. And when there are language barriers, either from language loss through dementia or speaking another language, we can still communicate and build connection through art making.
Stephenson, an assistant professor of Expressive Therapies and program coordinator for Art Therapy, has put Lesley University at the forefront of art therapy for older adults. With a strong body of work on how the arts can promote health and wellness in older people, she is also an experienced clinician and the founder of national and international art therapy programs.
And, the demographics are compelling. In 2030, adults over 65 will make up 20 percent of the population of the United States. But, Stephenson says, a change in the national mindset also gives art therapists a tremendous opportunity to contribute.
“The conversation has started to encompass health and wellness. Older adults are also thinking more about quality of life and about remaining creatively active and socially engaged,” she says. Even policy makers are moving in this direction, with the Affordable Care Act of 2010 calling for a National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council.
For older adults, the unseen enemy is often isolation. Losses mount as spouses and friends die, or older adults decide to leave the home where they have lived for years. The resulting depression and withdrawal from society, often accompanied by medical problems, can threaten meaningful and productive later years.
Stephenson wants to embed creative arts into the day-to-day lives of older adults. If only for economic reasons, an incentive exists. “If by improving a person’s sense of happiness and social connection through creative engagement we can reduce isolation and depression, we may be able to delay significant contact with the healthcare system. That’s money that isn’t being spent,” she says.
Stephenson’s research shows that making art with others can counteract these negative impacts and instead promote increased self-esteem, motivation and social connection, leading to improved health and well-being. “When people take the risk of making art with others, it builds community, which is therapeutic. Making art allows this community-building to happen quickly and more powerfully,” she says.