Folk Arts ~ Arts for Life Program
The connection between art and health is a fast-growing, fairly recent area of emphasis and research that is spreading across the United States. By contrast, the North Dakota Council on the Arts (NDCA) has worked in this area for some time. Through the NDCA’s Art for Life Program, our state was one of the first to explore and develop an arts/health nexus in a sustained and systemic way, specifically with regard to people in elder care facilities.
Over a two-year period, 1999-2000, the NDCA placed folk artists to perform in nearly every elder care facility in the state. Powerful anecdotal stories surfaced about the impact of those presentations on the elders. For example, an Alzheimer’s patient, who was often unresponsive and averse to being touched, danced with her husband during a concert. Another woman, almost completely immobile and confined to a wheelchair, was observed tapping her finger to the beat of the music. Additional positive anecdotal information was generated in 1999 from the public demonstration requirement of a $2,000 NDCA Folk and Traditional Arts Apprenticeship Grant to Lila Hauge-Stoffel and Mary Seim. That public demonstration was held at the elder care facility where Mary worked. Lila (a professor of art and traditional textile artist), Mary Seim (an activities coordinator and traditional artist), and Troyd Geist (the folklorist with the NDCA) recognized these powerful examples. However, they also wondered if the arts’ impact with regard to health could be quantifiably measured.
Dr. William Thomas, a physician in New York, conducted medical research with elders in long term care facilities. That research resulted in the identification of the “Three Plagues” (loneliness, boredom, and helplessness) that, in a very real measurable way, negatively affects the physical and emotional health of our elders. In response, he developed an approach to institutional care called the Eden Alternative that is used throughout the country as a therapeutic model to counter the negative effects of loneliness, boredom, and helplessness. Building on that study, the NDCA wanted to know if extensive, long-term arts and artist interactions would influence the Three Plagues, and, thus by extension, improve the emotional and physical health of our elders.
So, in 2001-03, the NDCA (with Troyd Geist, Lila Hauge-Stoffel, Mary Seim, and Pioneer House, an elder care facility in Fargo) conducted a $57,000 therapeutic arts pilot study with support from the National Endowment for the Arts. Assessment tools were designed to quantifiably measure the effects of extensive folk, fine arts, and artist interactions with regard to the sense of loneliness, boredom, and helplessness experienced by the elders. Over that two-year period quilters, storytellers, Swedish Dala painters, potters, watercolor artists, and more, worked with the elders. The final assessment of the study pointed to a marked improvement in all three areas. The results of this study are discussed in the NDCA’s publication Art for Life: The Therapeutic Power and Promise of the Arts.
The subsequent quantifiable and anecdotal information was then utilized by the NDCA to obtain funding from the North Dakota state legislature to expand the pilot project into a program to improve the lives of elders by addressing the Three Plagues with art. In the program, the NDCA supports local arts agencies who partner with local artists and local elder care facilities to conduct arts residencies and activities with the facilities’ residents and their families. The program began in 2008 in three communities; Jamestown, Langdon, and Pekin (working alternately with McVille and Lakota). By 2014, the Art for Life Program will involve 9 local arts agencies working with approximately 14 elder care facilities in 11 communities: Ellendale, Enderlin, Grand Forks, Jamestown, Langdon, New Rockford, New Town, Pekin (with McVille and Lakota), and Wahpeton.
In 2013, recognized as a national leader in this effort of combining the areas of arts, health, and aging, the NDCA was asked to participate in a national “best practices” effort involving 13 states. This “Communities of Practice” project is supported in partnership between the National Center for Creative Aging and the National Endowment for the Arts.
Additional articles about the impact of the Art for Life Program will appear in future newsletters and press releases; stories about elders becoming more responsive, interacting with others, and better able to make decisions, stories about a woman on her deathbed sharing a moment through a storytelling project, a lonely elderly man with children to finally call his own through a theater activity, a community that comes together to honor U.S. military veterans through a quilting project, a woman suffering from cancer and depression coming out of her shell – all these and more through the Art for Life Program.