In Expressive Arts Therapy, It's All About the Process
By Adam Raider
Driven by the belief that we all deserve to die pain-free and with dignity, Masonicare Hospice involves a team-oriented approach to expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support expressly tailored to the patient's needs and wishes.
One way in which Masonicare's hospice team addresses those needs is through the use of expressive arts therapy. A complement to medical and other interventions, expressive arts therapy uses drawing, painting, letter or journal writing, craftwork and a wide variety of other media and activities to help reduce anxiety, build self-esteem and a sense of control, manage pain and enhance the patient's overall well-being.
Expressive arts therapist Susan Holmes notes that, for some, the word "arts" can be intimidating because it suggests the patient needs some artistic skill or experience in order to reap the therapeutic benefits.
"But that's not what expressive arts is all about," she said. "The focus is on the process of making art and what it means to the individual, not necessarily on the outcome. Enjoying the arts, either actively or passively, can bring a sense of peace by making a connection to the beautiful in life and nature."
Susan sees herself as more of an "arts facilitator" – a facilitator of human connection who offers patients a means to communicate in a non-verbal way. It could be a patient creating an object as a legacy gift for a loved one, or the patient and a family member making new memories by creating art together.
Susan uses music whenever she can to help enhance this process. Music can be a powerful tool in triggering pleasant memories in patients suffering from Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia.
"I'll try to speak with the family to find out if the patient has a favorite song or genre of music," she said. "It might be their wedding song. I remember a couple in which the husband did not remember his wife. When their wedding song came on, it brought them back together. It makes you so happy to see these people reconnect, even if only for a few minutes. It makes you want to cry."
Susan remembers another hospice patient – a musician who had played in a band – who wanted to do a legacy project for his girlfriend, an artist. The man asked Susan to draw pictures inspired by the titles of some of his favorite songs. Then she asked the girlfriend to color them in, allowing the project to become a collaboration between the patient, the caregiver and a loved one.
Susan is the rare expressive arts therapist with experience in the clinical side of healthcare. A Long Island native, she spent a decade working in cardiotherapy in New York before a diagnosis of breast cancer required her to step away from her career to focus on her own health. She took advantage of the break to make art and care for her two young children.
After about 12 years out of the workforce, Susan decided to return to healthcare. Volunteering at a hospice in Southern Connecticut, she realized that she'd finally found her true calling.
"Art has always been a part of my life," she said, "and now I'm able to use it in this really rewarding way in hospice care. I feel like this is what I was meant to do. Better late than never, I guess."