Art enhances quality of life for veterans

Artworks facilitator Zana Becker chats with Brock Fahrni resident Alfred Best, 93, in the studio.

Alfred Best dips his brush in a jar of paint and applies a liberal amount of bubble-gum pink to his canvas.

“It matches my blue eyes,” the 93-year-old quips as he sweeps the cheerful hue across his latest masterpiece, “that’s the main thing.”

Alfred and a half dozen other residents of St. Vincent’s: Brock Fahrni are seated around a large table in the Artworks studio concentrating on their creative projects, sipping from mugs of hot cocoa, and nibbling on shortbread. Judy Garland croons softly over the speakers and the propped-open studio door lets in some fresh air on an unseasonably mild winter’s day.

Next to Alfred, Bill Johnson flips through the glossy pages of a reference book in search of the perfect image of a horse in motion. A prolific and generous artist, Bill tends to gift most of his work to staff and friends. Today, he wants to get started on a wall hanging that will decorate his room.

“This might be too ambitious,” he says, pausing on a picture of a chestnut horse in full gallop. Artworks facilitators Paddi McGrath (BFA) and Zana Becker (Adv dipl. Art Therapy, M.A. Educ, INTD dipl.) assure Bill he can do it and explain how they’ll help him map out the image on his canvas.

Artworks facilitators Paddi McGrath and Zana Becker.
Artworks facilitators Paddi McGrath and Zana Becker.

Started by the Department of Veteran Affairs in 1946, Artworks was instituted as a quality-of-life program to help veterans recuperate once they had returned home. The program was situated in Shaughnessy Hospital for many years before moving in 1983 to Brock Fahrni, which is home to 148 residents, many of them armed forces veterans. 

While the vets at Brock Fahrni have long since returned home, the non-profit program is just as impactful now as it was 73 years ago. From improved mental health to a better sense of wellbeing, the benefits of art for seniors are many. A recent Canadian study published in Current Directions in Psychological Science found that drawing has a “surprisingly powerful influence” on memory.

“There’s something very special about being creative and being able to express oneself using one’s imagination. It gives you a feeling unlike anything else,” Paddi says. “It’s meditative; it makes you forget pain, trauma and stress by focusing on positive life experiences.”

The goal of Artworks is to enhance residents’ quality of life by improving cognitive functions. Art as therapy can help achieve this. The act of creating art in a safe place with professionally trained facilitators allows residents to express their thoughts and emotions through the materials – words alone cannot achieve this.

Then there’s the social aspect. The studio has a calm atmosphere where participants feel like they’re part of a community. “They can talk if they want to, but they don’t necessarily have to,” Paddi says.

Residents can drop in five days a week. One morning per week, the instructors wheel a cart of supplies around the long-term care home for those who are on bed rest or not comfortable leaving their floors. David Dunnison’s wall is covered with watercolours of horses, wildlife, landscapes, and portraits of his friends and family – all of which he completed while propped up in bed. Still relatively new to painting, David has made great strides since he first picked up a brush.

Brock Fahrni resident David Dunnison holds up the first painting he ever did with the Artworks program.
Brock Fahrni resident David Dunnison holds up the first painting he ever did with the Artworks program.

“I always would have liked to learn how to paint, but I don’t have much confidence,” he says, “The teachers give me confidence and so maybe someday I’ll go on to acrylics.”

Back in the studio, Paddi and Zana circulate the room offering support, encouragement and hot cocoa refills. “Our emphasis is the process and the satisfaction of doing the job,” Paddi explains. “If somebody wants to be completely free and just paint the wildest, craziest thing, we would be all for it.”

Resident Lillian Nakashima is all smiles as she joins the group later in the afternoon and settles in with her very first acrylic painting. She’s always enjoyed art – drawing and watercolours in particular – and has been a regular in the Artworks studio since she moved to Brock Fahrni several years ago.

“It keeps me busy and I enjoy coming here,” Lillian says. “Everybody’s so helpful.”

Clockwise from left: Lillian Nakashima shows off her first foray into acrylics (still a work in progress); Wendell Ratcliffe, who once grew prize-winning irises, paints a floral scene; the instructors are helping a resident paint the Sabre airplane he flew with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

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