Kim Coulter, resident artist at Garrison Green Seniors Community, is speaking to resident Lil Jantz as they examine her painting of a lighthouse perched on the edge of a cliff, looking out over the ocean at dusk.
“It’s a little flat,” Coulter advises.
“You’re so gracious when you say that,” jokes Betty Earle, another Garrison Green resident. “Kim always makes us feel really clever.”
Surrounded by a multitude of brightly coloured artwork hanging from, or placed carefully on each available surface in the sunlit room, the three ladies working in the studio fill the air with laughter.
Coulter has been the resident artist at Garrison for two years. With the studio open seven days a week, and available to residents at all times, Coulter is emphatic about the positive outcomes of including arts as a part of a holistic approach to the experience of aging – an important part of the Garrison Green philosophy.
“I have a lady who comes down to the studio when she has pain because she knows that (working on her art) is good for her,” Coulter says. “She’ll come down and she will look sort of folded over, and when she leaves she is standing upright and smiling.”
The artist, who has a Bachelor of Fine Art along with certification in art therapy, says that many people demonstrate remarkable “shifts” after taking a few art classes.
“You see the change. You feel it,” she says smiling. “Some people come into the studio very introverted, and not engaging with the class. Over time they will develop different skills, and then they become more engaged with the group.
“They (become) social — they’ve got friends. That’s pretty significant.”
A “haven” for residents
Jantz says that having access to the vibrant studio has done far more than provide a new hobby.
“I appreciate the release (art) gives me from what’s going on in my mind right now,” she says.
With her husband living in the long-term care facility adjacent to Garrison Green where Jantz spends most of her time, she describes the studio as a place where she can “put (her) feet up and forget.”
In addition to the art itself, Jantz says that the art studio has added to the overall reception she has experienced while living at Garrison Green.
“It’s such a relief for me to know that I’m accepted,” she says.
Similarly, Earle has gleaned much more than painting tips from her experiences in the art studio.
“This is a room we have lots of laughs in, and that is really important at our age,” she says. “If we can keep laughing at things, we are going to be alright rather than get depressed — because we are at the age where we know that things are going to happen. We have to accept it.”
And though one would never know it by looking at her work, Earle says that before moving into the seniors community with her husband, she had never painted before.
“(The staff) made it so easy to try, and they are full of compliments whether it’s good, bad or indifferent,” she laughs. “I love the art room because it is fun and (I) have so many nice friends down here. It’s played a big part in my life. “
Art as therapy
Gail Hinchliffe, president and chief operating officer of United Active Living Incorporated, says that the experience in the art studio has been beneficial for residents and health care workers at the seniors community.
Nursing students, who often come from the nearby Mount Royal University for work-experience, are given a chance to see the residents in new way, Hinchliffe says.
“As health care workers, it’s very easy to focus on the body,” she says, adding that body-focused care is often about treating some form of disease or problem, making it easy to forget about the patient as a whole person.
Working together in the art studio gives students, staff and residents a chance to interact and get to know each other in a different way, Hinchliffe says.
A dream job
For Coulter, one of the brightest spots of her job has been watching residents uncover hidden talents.
“(Imagine) in your 80s you discover that you have creative talent or you have skills that you never knew you had,” she says. “Especially for people who are really kind of down on themselves, or they are having a hard time with the change of moving, or significant loss — for a lot of (the residents), art gives them a way to cope.”
But even for the art hobbyist who might not be the next Van Gogh, using the studio still has much to offer, says Coulter.
“I asked the group one day, ‘what does the studio mean to you?’ and one of the gentlemen said, ‘It’s a place where you can come and forget about everything else for a while, and just focus on your art.’”