#VisualPeople: Cassie Ackerman on the Mega Power of Art in Long-Term Care

by Samantha Mehra
This week in the Visual People series: Meet Cassie Ackerman, a Toronto-based recreational therapist working to improve the lives of those in long-term care. We talk art education, healing through doing, and the impact of inviting the visual into the worlds of seniors.

SM: First, let’s talk “journey”. What led you into recreational therapy in the first place, particularly in long-term care?
CA: I was finishing a placement for social work in a long-term care home, working with seniors who were diagnosed with dementia, as well as adults with traumatic brain injuries. I got involved with some of the programs (such as exercise and art therapy) to connect with the patients; I really enjoyed it, as well as the hands-on approach to helping others that it involves.

SM: What is your personal history with visual (or other) arts?
CA: I first had a passion for portraits in high school; I had a very inspiring teacher who taught me a lot of the basics and helped me to expand on what I already knew. I loved to capture the expressions of other people, and I relished the challenge of using different mediums (such as pencil and charcoal). Later on, I discovered how much I enjoyed painting. In addition to learning visual art skills in high school, I got some first-hand training from my siblings, who are both artists. I have anxiety, so visual art has been a therapeutic way for me to cope with it.

SM: When you entered the art therapy programs, then, you already understood the impact that art creation has on one’s mood, health, and cognitive skills.
CA: Oh definitely. It’s really calming and you feel immense pride after finishing a piece.
SM: Do you have a preferred medium?

CA: I prefer pencil, because I find it’s easier to shade and capture shadows and lighting. Also: It’s less mess!

SM: When you first got involved in the recreational art therapy programs with seniors, what kind of work were they doing?
CA: They were mostly working with watercolour and acrylic. What we do depends on the cognitive level of the individual and how they’re feeling that day. For some, I draw out a picture and they colour it in, choosing their colours and then focusing in on filling the image. For others, I guide them on where to paint certain objects, or allow them to use the materials to explore their own mind.

SM: What kind of diverse minds are you teaching in this space?
CA: Some of them have Alzheimer’s, so this means they experience memory loss, loss of spatial awareness, loss of coordination, hallucinations, delusions, and/or the loss of the ability to follow direction. So, often times we simplify instructions and map out smaller tasks for them. A majority of those I work with are also diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and in some cases, schizophrenia. This means they may face things like panic attacks, sadness, lethargy, and lack of concentration. Everyday, and every student, is different.

SM: In terms of setup and instruction, can you describe what a typical class would look like?
CA: It’s usually 8-10 people, and smaller is better because I can divide my time and attention with each person more easily. Some are able to follow simple directions, and others require additional assistance such as hand-over-hand guidance, positive reinforcement, and emotional support. I work with them daily, so I know many of the residents and their diagnoses/behaviours and moods well. I begin by showing everyone the piece, and then I point out the tools we’ll be using in class. I also like to make the space a calming, positive environment.

SM: How do you plan your lessons?
CA: I paint out the project before hand, and choose which residents (or they’re preselected if I’m working at another facility) will be involved in the class. I also choose relaxing music (such as classical) to play in the background. I’ve found this helps people to focus. Then we just kind of go for it! I don’t like too many rules.

SM: Now, I’m really curious about this because I’ve taught in a wide range of scenarios and I find teaching in itself is an ongoing kind of education. What has surprised you about working with seniors? And: What has surprised you about the impact art-making has on their health/lives?
CA: What has surprised me about this is our ability to, no matter what stage in life we are at, learn something new if we give ourselves a chance. And that even if we are dealing with memory loss, the aftermath of a stroke, or mental illnesses, we are able to use new parts of our brain to complete a task, creative and not, with assistance. Many of those memories come back to us when we’re doing repetitive tasks or are able to focus. I’ve found people feel calmer after they have been creating something. They seem more relaxed, and happy that they were able to share their memories, or have a momentary distraction from pain.

SM: What has been their response to these classes?
CA: I’ve heard several responses that they enjoy it. Many families of the patients are surprised, and will say things like, “My loved one hasn’t painted in years.” Others may not enjoy it, and that’s okay! It’s not for everyone. One scenario that surprised me: I had a resident who was a former member of the Watercolour Society of Toronto. She had middle-stage Alzheimer’s and hadn’t painted in about 5 years, and her family thought she may have lost the ability. We set her up with the appropriate paper and paints, and she started creating a landscape almost immediately. With some encouragement and a little guidance, it came right back to her.

SM: By the end of each of the classes you lead, what do you hope they’ve gotten out of the experience?
CA: I hope they are able to have a sense of accomplishment and peace. I also hope they are able to realize that nothing can stop you if you have a passion to try something new.
I also hope it helped distract from physical and emotional pain for a little while.
SM: Now for a l’il introspection: How has this profession encouraged you to create your own work, or even just experiment with new mediums? Do you have an ‘art bucket list’ as a result of being knee-deep in the experience now?
CA: Creating new things for them to try certainly keeps me on my toes. I’ve also started painting with acrylics more and experimenting with new mediums (like matte and sand). And: I’ve always wanted to paint an oil portrait. I’m really intimidated by the idea, but would love to take on that challenge!
SM: And my last question, which I think is a big one: What do you have to say (given that you work hands-on with it every day) about the tremendous impact that art therapy can have on people, senior or not?

CA: There is no side-effect to art therapy, exercise, or aromatherapy. You feel good and calm during the process, and it can happily stay with you for the remainder of the day. I feel that too many places rely on promoting pharmaceuticals before they explore other options, or may not include lifestyle changes to go along with pharmaceutical interventions. A medication can assist in alleviating symptoms or behaviours, but it doesn’t replace the sense of accomplishment, socializing or emotional support that art therapy can bring.

Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Yes? Good. Tell us about it.

*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the nitty gritty of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process(es). A healthy Thank-You to Cassie Ackerman for donating her time, know-how, and giving her permission to use her images for the purposes of this article. 

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