When UWM and the United Community Center (UCC) partnered to create an arts program for seniors at the UCC Adult Day Center, the purpose was improving quality of life for clients. That goal inspired participants to devise ways to work together.
Language barriers had to be overcome, since the undergraduate UWM students involved spoke only English or very limited Spanish, and many of the seniors spoke only Spanish. Despite little experience as youth and adults, the seniors discovered the joy of creating art. And while many of the seniors lived with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia, the program allowed them to express with art what they cannot always express with words.
“This art program allows these seniors to explore very intimate feelings,” says Patricia Najera, assistant director of UWM’s Center for Urban Initiatives and Research (CUIR). “Their experiences and memories can be shared through art and while making art in the moment.”
The program was established in 2011, when Nelva Olin, coordinator of the Adult Day Center, approached Najera about creating a new arts program for day center participants. Najera connected with Christine Woywod, adjunct assistant professor of art education, who was interested in developing art programs for underserved populations in the community.
Woywod and Najera secured funding for a yearlong project from UWM’s Office of Undergraduate Research that would explore how arts programming for clients with early signs of memory loss, physical limitations and mental health issues could help meet the needs of the Latino community. In addition, the project would engage undergraduates in investigating “the use of culturally responsive selections of visual culture as a path to motivating art making that can elicit memories and conversations.”
Funding also was provided by CUIR, UWM’s Peck School of the Arts and the UCC. The Memory Wall or Mural de Recuerdos, a part of the arts program, was funded separately through a UWM Cultures and Communities Program CUP (Community/University Partnership) grant.
Woywod describes this ceramic mural as a “physical record” of the older adults’ creative engagement during Saturday programs. Over the course of six months, UWM faculty, staff and students worked with the seniors and day center staff to share stories and memories, “enjoying the moment while forming the individual ceramic pieces.” Recurring themes that grew from these conversations included family, culture, music, nature and love.
“For many of the seniors, this was the first experience working with clay,” says Woywod. “While creating, many recalled a range of memories, described a sense of happiness and demonstrated pride as they contributed to this collaborative piece. It was a mutually beneficial experience for all involved.”
This “mutual benefit” was discussed by one of the students, Cindy Friese, a senior in Art Education, at the gala unveiling of the mural this spring. “When I first came here, I was nervous because my Spanish is not very good. I worried that this might offend some people. I worried that I could not be effective. But I have learned that art is a universal language.”
Friese describes the mural as “a symbol of all the wonderful people I have met, their loving families, and how art can create meaningful moments for people at any age.”
At the formal unveiling of the mural, those attending were able to view other artwork created by the day center clients – including paintings made with unusual “brushes,” like brooms and toilet plungers. Several striking banners were created by applying paint to paper, folding it in half, and having the seniors dance on top of the paper to create colorful Rorschach-like patterns.
Adding to the celebration at the March 28 unveiling was the news that this partnership will continue past May 2012, thanks to a partial renewal of funding. Friese will be doing a research project related to caregivers as a McNair Scholar this summer. Also this summer, Kym Richardson, an Art Education major, will continue with data analysis and prepare materials for Adult Day Center staff development. That training will be funded through CUIR.