For Older Adults and their Teenage Volunteers at United Church of Christ-related Harmar Place, Art Feeds the Soul

Opening Minds Through Art pairs high school students with older adults at Harmar Place to create abstract art.

A blank canvas. The necessary painting implements. Two souls — one younger, one older — working together on something new. An exciting program at UCC-related Harmar Place in Marietta, Ohio, is paving the way for older adults with dementia to express themselves in creative ways.

Opening Minds through Art began at Harmar Place — a United Church Homes community — in October 2017, when 15 students from Marietta High School were paired to work one-on-one with older adults to create abstract art. Harmar Place holds two or three nine-week sessions every year, each run by a trained facilitator. The students and older adults meet every Wednesday to work on their art and get to know each other.

Each session ends with an art show. Some of the artwork goes to the families of the artists; the rest is auctioned off. All proceeds from the auction are poured back into the program.

Harmar Place Marketing and Admissions Coordinator Terry Schneider says the collaboration has been a blessing.

Both the students and the older adults benefit from the program.

“The Opening Minds through Art program provides abundant life as our residents work with younger people, which makes them feel needed,” Schneider says. “It empowers our residents when they see what they have accomplished. They feel like they are contributing to the community by being involved and mentoring the younger generation. They form a bond with their volunteers.”

The students are trained to help the older adults use imagination instead of memory, to focus on remaining strengths instead of lost skills — and abstract art is the perfect medium for that message. Said one older adult artist with glee, “I really did that? I can’t believe I did that!”

But the older adults aren’t the only ones who reap benefits. The student volunteers also feel that they have helped contribute to the well-being of the older adults. Said one, “It makes me feel better about myself knowing that I make someone else happy.” Another added, “It makes me want to volunteer more and do things for others.”

That sentiment, echoed by many of the teens, is one of the outcomes organizers of the program hoped to accomplish. “The program brings the younger generation into the community; and [they] feel like they are doing something worthwhile,” Schneider says. “It exposes them to the potential for healthcare careers and helps them form bonds with elders, while giving the students an opportunity to teach older adults something new.”

But perhaps the relationships forged between the teens and older adults is the most important outcome of Opening Minds through Art.

“I love doing art with my volunteer,” said one resident. “She’s like my little girl.”

As one teen summarized, “I learned from my resident that even if life gets difficult, you can be upbeat and have a good time.”

Harmar Place is a senior living community of United Church Homes, a CHHSM-member ministry headquartered in Marion, Ohio. The community also offers short- and long-term rehabilitation, skilled nursing, and memory care services. Opening Minds through Art is a person-directed program of the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

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