Lesley Professor Dr. Raquel Stephenson taps into the healing powers of art, and employs creative endeavors as a means of keeping the elderly connected and engaged with the world around them.
The older adults in Dr. Raquel Stephenson’s art therapy session were painting. One non-verbal participant lit up as she experienced the tactile qualities of paint, its smell, touch and feel. “These visceral interactions with the materials opened up a new path for communication with her,” said Stephenson. “Where Alzheimer’s Disease slammed shut the door of communication, art therapy opened up a new window.”
The demographics are compelling. In 2030, adults over 65 will make up 20% of the population of the United States. But Stephenson says a change in the national mindset also gives art therapists a “tremendous opportunity to contribute.”
“The conversation has started to encompass health and wellness. Older adults are also thinking more about quality of life and about remaining creatively active and socially engaged,” said Stephenson. Even policy makers are moving in this direction, with the Affordable Care act of 2010 calling for a National Prevention, Health Promotion, and Public Health Council.
Stephenson wants to embed creative arts into the day-to-day lives of older adults. If only for economic reasons, an incentive exists. “If by improving a person’s sense of happiness and social connection through creative engagement we can reduce isolation and depression, we may be able to delay significant contact with the healthcare system. That’s money that isn’t being spent,” she says.
For older adults, the unseen enemy is often isolation. Losses mount as spouses and friends die, or older adults decide to leave the home where they have lived for years. The resulting depression and withdrawal from society, often accompanied by medical problems, can threaten meaningful and productive later years.
Stephenson’s research shows that making art with others can counteract these negative impacts and instead promote increased self-esteem, motivation and social connection, leading to improved health and well-being.
”Older adults have a high capacity for creativity because they are willing to take risks,” says Stephenson.
“When people take the risk of making art with others, it builds community, which is therapeutic. Making art allows this community-building to happen quickly and more powerfully.”
Stephenson has established and led community-based art therapy programs for older adults, making her a rich source of insight for students. For seven years she directed New York University’s Creative Arts Therapeutic Services, a grant-funded program she founded.
After being awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant, she spent the 2010/2011 academic year teaching at the Tallinn University in Estonia. In contrast to the United States, the Baltic republic has few social services for older adults. Moreover, many members of the older generation had suffered profound trauma. “In any case where you’re working intergenerationally, there will be multiple layers of challenges and differences. This was especially so in Estonia given its history,” said Stephenson
Two years later, in April 2013, she returned to Tallinn University to establish Estonia’s first formal creative arts therapy program for older adults. An integral part of the work she and her Estonian colleagues did was to train staff and graduate students in different ways to engage and connect with participants.
“The power is in the art making process, in how the artist engages with the art being made. When barriers of language exist, either through the language loss of dementia or through speaking another language, we can still communicate. We can still build connection,” she said.
Stephenson, Assistant Professor of Expressive Therapies and Program Coordinator for Art Therapy, joined the Lesley University faculty in 2013. She has put Lesley at the forefront of art therapy for older adults. With a strong body of work on how the arts can promote health and wellness in older people, she is also an experienced clinician and the founder of national and international art therapy programs.
Not surprisingly Stephenson’s office looks like an art gallery, the walls hung with paintings her participants have made. One artist with past artistic training used muted lilacs, greys and greens to bring out the softness of an alpine landscape. Another worked abstractly, juxtaposing free-form swaths of red and yellow.
Stephenson’s energy level may come from her years as a competitive sailor and speed skater. More likely her drive comes from the opportunities she sees for her field.
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