Calgary’s third Creative Aging Symposium promotes multiple artistic endeavours for an aging population

creative-aging-symposium-wheelchair-paint-tbOn the projector screen at the Ross Glen conference hall, a drawing stares back at the crowd of roughly 100 people, evoking a collective gasp that rises and falls into the high-ceilinged room.

 On one side of the drawing a long procession of people in wheelchairs disappear into the front gates of a factory, while the back door ushers out rows and rows of coffins.

The drawing is titled “Long Term Care” and the artist is a resident of such a facility.

Jeff Nachtigall, the artist-in-residence from Sherbrooke Community Centre – a long term care facility in Saskatoon – points out the piles of people crowding into the artist’s depiction of hell at the bottom of his drawing, while above the factory a handful of souls float whimsically up into the heavens.

It is only one of many drawings that Nachtigall, keynote speaker for the third Creative Aging Calgary Symposium, has brought to demonstrate the powerful results of using visual arts as a way for residents of long-term care facilities to access their own creative potential.


Jeff Nachtigall’s workshop included a participatory painting session that included the use of wheelchairs, crutches, and bare feet.

Photo by Melissa Molloy“I look at art as being a communal language,” Nachtigall tells the crowd. “I’m not a teacher – (the studio at the long care facility) is an environment where peers come together and we share as artists.”

In a later workshop, Nachtigall tells a smaller crowd about his recent work with a group of veterans. He says that the first hurdle was dealing with the notion the vets had that art was something “the wives did.”

The artist says that many of his sessions fell flat, and the participants seemed less than eager to express their creative selves. The lackluster reception was further exaggerated by the fact that many of the participants were also living with Alzheimer’s or dementia, illnesses causing short attention spans at the best of times.

But when Nachtigall got the idea to place a large canvas on the floor of the studio and attach rags to the bottoms of canes and wheelchairs “the session lasted for over an hour,” and the veterans were not only fully engaged, but reluctant to stop painting.

This was only one revelation in which Nachtigall realized that “you don’t have to paint with a brush.”

“I believe that we are born artists. Before we can write, before we can read, we can communicate visually,” Nachtigall says. “What happens to our creativity when we get older? Do we lose it?

“Maybe we haven’t lost (it), but we have buried it. Some of us have buried it deeper than others.”

Nachtigall stresses that the whole notion of visual art has to be “demystified.” He believes that everyone has the potential to create something great, but many times ideas about “good” art and “bad” art have to be reframed.

He assures the crowd that with the willingness to think outside the box, art can be a way of restoring passion and joy into the lives of not only older adults, but anybody. He backs up this claim with photographs of fully paralyzed people creating elaborate paintings.

“I’m not interested in limitations.”

creativeaging-jeff-nachtigall-david-dworkinVisual artist, Jeff Nachtigall and Maestro David Dworkin were two of the keynote speakers at the 3rd Creative Aging Symposium.

Photo by Melissa MolloyART AS A HEALING TOOL

Many studies have linked participation in some type of artistic work with positive outcomes for people living with dementia. A 2010 article in the Journal of Active Aging said that “artistic endeavors target the healthy parts of the brain – areas untouched by disease, whether the participant has Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia.”

Other benefits listed in the article include reduction of anxiety and depression, increased concentration, greater social interaction and improved attention spans.

Recently, a symposium was put on by the Creative Aging Calgary Society, a group developed in 2009 to educate the public and health care professionals about the ways in which various art forms appear to have a positive “physical impact … on older adults.” The society held multiple workshops in which health care professionals and seniors could get a taste of how different creative expressions could promote various levels of healing not only for patients with dementia, but all forms of age-related stress or disease.


Maestro David Dworkin is a Juilliard graduate with over 60 years of experience conducting orchestras across North America and overseas.

At 77, Dworkin now travels extensively and educates health care professionals on how to use his music-based exercise program, Conductorcise — a fitness program that benefits older adults through physical movement and the development of deeper listening skills.

A group of 30 or so symposium attendees are given a single chopstick while an exuberant Dworkin explains the healing properties of music.

He tells the crowd of his experience at a long term care facility in Washington D.C. where he demonstrated his program to a group of vets, some of whom had suffered extreme maiming.

“One man came in a wheelchair covered in towels, even wrapped around his face,” Dworkin describes. “God only knows what happened to him.”

When the maestro turned on a march, however, the same man in the wheelchair began to move his cane rhythmically up and down to the astonishment of the facility’s employees, who later told Dworkin that it had been the first movement the man had made in months.

“Music is very powerful,” Dworkin says.

Along with the movements of a conductor, participants in Dworkin’s classes are also asked to listen deeply to layers of the music he plays – tuning the ear to hear the beat of the basses way down beneath the sing-song sound of the flutes and oboes.

“When you learn new things, the brain is wiring and firing,” Dworkin tells the crowd.

While Mozart fills the workshop room with complex sounds, the participants of Dworkin’s seminar seem overcome with joy – feet tapping and arms flowing from side to side, mimicking the rhythm of a true conductor. One can almost visualize the symphony before them. After all, it is difficult not to fully engage with Dworkin who is so clearly passionate about what he teaches. Jumping up and down, his eyes closed, he tells the class to let the music infiltrate their whole body.

“I cannot think of retiring,” Dworkin smiles.

For more information on arts immersion for seniors in Calgary, check out the following links:

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