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Dance, Drama, Literature, Music, Visual and Traditional Arts
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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

~ Wahpeton Art for Life partners Limericks
Troyd Geist, NDCA Folklorish, had several meetings with NDCA’s Art for Life partners in Wahpeton. The arts agency there, with Wayne Beyer, is partnering with the elder care facility. They also visited with the zoo. It is a fine zoo in Wahpeton, and they developed ideas of how to bring the zoo into the partnership with arts and animals. So, the zoo is taking animals to the elder care facility to show them to the elders, tell about their habits, character, environment, etc. Then the elders, with artists, write stories about them (like fables) or paint or draw them, or such thing. The first animals were a couple of kinds of owls. With a writer, limericks were developed with the elders based on or inspired by the owls brought in. Read the limericks via this link

~ On the Edge of the Wind and Take Flight, Music and Guided Imagery CDs Released
The North Dakota Council on the Arts and Sanford Health have unveiled two unique CDs of music and guided imagery. One CD, On the Edge of the Wind: From the Mythic Landscape of the Dakotas, features renowned award-winning American Indian flute player and Bush Foundation Fellowship recipient Keith Bear of New Town, ND. Produced by the NDCA folklorist, Troyd Geist, the CD also features sounds of Nature that are heard over a 24-hour period at specific geographic sites in the Dakotas.

Edge CD coverThese places – buttes where visions are sought, lakes that heal, stones that provide messages, and other places that help “the People” – are considered sacred (wakan) or special by American Indian groups and have specific traditional stories associated with them. The wind blowing through the tall grass, the gentle lapping of a lakeshore, eagles, songbirds, buffalo, the lonesome coyote, and many other sounds are reflected in this beautiful CD. On the Edge of the Wind consists of 15 tracks with tunes such as “Sky Woman’s Creation,” “Trickster’s Lament,” “Thunder Butte,” and “To the Messengers, Sing.”     

The other CD, Take Flight: Guided Imagery to American Indian Flute Music features the guided imagery narration of American Indian physician and Bush Foundation Fellowship recipient Dr. Linda Gourneau of Bismarck, ND. Dr. Gourneau’s narration in Take Flight is accompanied by the flute music of Keith Bear. Guided imagery narration and music both are documented to have an improved effect on emotional and physical states like a sense of calm, heart rate, blood pressure, and brain wave activity. Used together, they can be a powerful tool. Again produced by Troyd Geist, each track couples narration and flute music to serve as a vehicle for guided imagery sessions designed to positively address and impact feelings of helplessness and loneliness, as well as the physical state, of the listener.

In addition to being available for general distribution and enjoyment, the CDs are being utilized in a unique and appropriate way for our regionTake Flight CD cover – to address issues within the realm of healthcare. Dr. Gourneau notes that studies indicate many potent effects of music on physiological functions like reduced anxiety, heart and respiratory rates, cardiac complications, blood pressure, stress hormones, and an increase in immune cell messengers and natural opiates. Dr. Gourneau finds that American Indian flute music, especially tunes of low to mid-tonal quality, is especially conducive in achieving positive healthful effects. In fact, many American Indians already regard the traditional flute as a “healing” instrument.

Dr. Gourneau, Brendan Gourneau (also a traditional flute player who was taught by Keith Bear), and Troyd Geist have developed activity plans to be used with the CDs which will become available for use with the NDCA’s Art for Life Program. This program develops partnerships between local arts agencies, artists, and elder care facilities to address the sense of loneliness, helplessness, and boredom that have been documented to have a measurable negative impact on the physical and emotional health of older adults in care facilities.     

Sanford Health will utilize both CDs within 38 of its primary care clinics as part of their nationally recognized One Care Initiative. A specific area of focus for the One Care Initiative is to improve the ability of Sanford Health to better meet the culturally specific needs of American Indian patients. One of the most consistent issues arising is how American Indian patients feel welcomed, engaged, and communicated to in health clinic settings.

Guided imagery can help people in the natural reduction of stress through the mind-body experience. The counterpoint of sounds and narration can invoke positive changes in personal comfort and healing. Sanford Health hopes to use these CDs as a step toward improving the engagement, experience, and health outcomes of American Indian patients.  Research indicates that engaged patients are more likely to improve their health over time and Sanford appreciates how the CDs are designed with cultural elements more identifiable to our American Indian communities.

Being located in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota, Sanford Health serves one of the largest American Indian populations in a health system outside of Indian Health Services.  American Indians have some of the largest health disparities in the country.

The One Care Initiative is made possible by a $12.1 million dollar grant from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid. Sanford Health has developed a user’s manual to accompany the guided imagery CDs within their facilities. The CDs were made possible by the NDCA, the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum, the ND Office of Attorney General (with funding received from the national settlement on Compact Disc Minimum Advertised Price Litigation), and Sanford Health-Sanford One Care. 

For further information or to order the CDs, contact the NDCA at (701) 328-7590, or via email at Limited quantities of the CD’s are available for purchase. To order CD’s email Keith Bear at For more information from Sanford, contact Darryl Schafer at (605) 312-4144 or via email at

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