Student and senior collaboration is an art form in Swampscott

December 18, 2023

December 15, 2023 written by Anthony Cammalleri

OMA artist Ian Shaw shows Director of Aging Services Heidi Whear, MPH, his artwork during the showing of “Opening Minds Through Art” show at Swampscott Senior Center. (Spenser Hasak)

SWAMPSCOTT — A new collaboration between the high school and Council on Aging is providing seniors living with dementia and high-school students a chance to connect through art.

Seniors and Swampscott High School students lined the halls of the Senior Center on Friday morning, gazing upon an array of vibrant-colored abstract art pieces that they created together at the Opening Minds through Art open house.

The program, funded through the Greater Lynn Senior Services grant, was integrated in the high school’s health curriculum over a six-week period.

Health teacher Hadley Woodfin trained the students in Opening Minds through Art, an art-based therapy practice for those living with dementia and memory loss, before they worked directly with the seniors once a week.

Since those affected by Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia often struggle to create realistic depictions in art therapy, OMA-certified artist and Granger St. Studios owner Siobhan McDonald said that OMA provides participating seniors with an outlet for some of the intense emotional strains brought on by dementia through the boundless genre of abstract art.

Woodfin said all of the participating students volunteered to become OMA-trained providers before the school quarter began. Once they met, she said the student-senior collaboration was seamless.

“When we were actually coming over here, a few of us, like everyone, were a little bit anxious, not knowing what to expect. Then when we got over here, everything just felt so natural, and it was just a natural bond created between all the kids in there and their artists,” Woodfin said.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 3.4 million Americans ages 71 and older — roughly 14% of that age group — have some form of dementia. Woodfin added that since most of the participating students will, at some point in their lives, develop or watch a loved one develop memory loss, the training will come in handy.

This was the case for volunteer Jackson Christison, whose grandmother lives with Alzheimer’s. Christison eventually took on a leadership role in the program, building deep connections with many of the seniors.

Christison said he hopes the program will continue next quarter and next year, adding that he plans to start an OMA club at the high school, as well as a summer OMA-training program.

“Being able to build a relationship with someone who has dementia, it’s different from you and I just talking. Seeing them remember the feelings and the way you made them feel, it’s a special thing,” Christison said. “It’s hard for us to see them like this. It’s even harder, I’m sure, for them to actually live with this condition, and to see them put that all aside and just really immerse themselves in their art is powerful.”

For seniors living with dementia, Senior Center Outreach Assistant Director Sabrina Clopton said, OMA training provides an avenue for therapeutic expression and interpersonal bonding with a younger generation. She said the training also teaches students about the day-to-day lives of those living with dementia, as well as how to positively interact with people living with memory loss.

Clopton added that the program also combats some of the stigma surrounding Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia and memory loss.

“It just adds to a more inclusive community, which is a goal of the high school in general and the goal of us here at the Senior Center — to make our center for people of all ages and promote education and awareness,” Clopton said.

Senior Karen Sorkin, who participated in the program, said she thoroughly enjoyed the program and, like Christison, hopes to see it continue.

“It was a medium that I’ve never worked in before. I majored in filmmaking in college, so I’ve had some experience in the arts, but the freedom of it and working with the kids, it was just so wonderful,” Sorkin said.

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Krysta Peterson

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