I want to tell you another story about art therapy in action. As always, details have been changed to protect the identity of the client, who has since passed away.
Sonia was a resident at a nursing home I worked at many years ago. She was legally blind and dealing with symptoms of dementia, along with numerous medical problems. Because of her symptoms, she had difficulty interacting with others in the present moment.
I took my little traveling case of art materials and went to visit her. She lived in a small room that she rarely left and that was shared with another resident. Tchotchkes lined the room, a small 12′ x 12′ space. When I first met Sonia, I wasn’t sure how I could be helpful to her. She told wild stories of being the doctor to the President and flying off in her helicopter on the weekends to save him from a life-threatening emergency.
I introduced Sonia to the art materials I had in my “have art, will travel” tool kit. Because of being legally blind, she had trouble managing the paint and brushes. I started loading the brushes with paint and handing them to her. She began painting.
While she painted, she spoke of trees. Trees that welcomed her, hid her, sheltered her, protected her. Trees that were vast and green and luscious. She painted these trees, or her approximation of them. And slowly but surely her stories changed.
I no longer heard about saving the President. No, now the stories were about being a famous artist and selling her work to galleries for thousands of dollars. She was absolutely elated as she told me of the dealers who had come from far and wide to buy her work.
Did art therapy “cure” Sonia’s dementia? No, of course not. But it did give her a positive identity, an outlet, a focusing energy, and a conduit for our relationship. I came in one morning to learn that Sonia had passed away in the night. I was deeply saddened, but I will never forget how her eyes saw trees.