Friday, July 2, 2010

Arts & Health Partnership at The Morrison Now Under Way

Last fall, I had the good fortune to witness dancer Jeanne Limmer conduct a movement workshop with a group of elderly ladies at a local nursing home. The 15 women were seated in a circle, most in wheelchairs. Many were suffering from dementia and some seemed unresponsive to what was going on around them.

Jeanne used simple movement exercises to engage these ladies in a wonderful hour of camaraderie, sharing, and a unique form of dancing. She began by throwing her arms in the air and saying, "My name is Jeanne. Tell me what your name looks like." Patiently, she went around the circle and asked that question: "Tell me what your name looks like."

One by one, each lady said her name and moved her body. Some made grand gestures, others made teeny, tiny movements with their hands or arms, and all but one of them participated.

Now that the ice had been broken, Jeanne asked them to tell a story with her. "Tell me about an important event in your life," she said. One woman said it was when she had married, and she clasped her hands over her heart. Jeanne had everyone mimic that movement. Another woman said that it was the birth of her child, and rocked an imaginary baby in her arms. Again, Jeanne had everyone mimic the movement. A third woman coyly batted her eyelashes and shrugged her shoulders in a gesture reminiscent of a teenage girl with her first boyfriend. "It was my first beau," she said. This movement was a little more difficult for everyone to pull off, but they moved their bodies and their faces in their versions of "first love."

By now, Jeanne had enough movements to construct a flowing story dance. Together, the women - seated in wheelchairs and chairs - moved their arms, hands, torsos and faces in a lovely dance depicting the special moments of love, marriage and birth that most had experienced many years before.

By the time the workshop finished, the women were smiling, giggling, reaching out to touch Jeanne and ask questions - and very much more lively than when they had entered the room. It was a unique and uplifting experience for all involved.

These kinds of moments - where arts and health intersect in a positive and even transformative way - are what the Arts Alliance wants to create on an ongoing basis at nursing homes and senior centers around the North Country.

Our early successes, like the one just described - as well as a growing body of research around the country - confirm our conviction that in-depth arts programming could have a beneficial effect on both our region's elders and their care providers. The Morrison nursing home and assisted living facility in Whitefield was eager to partner with us to develop an Arts & Health program for their facility, beginning with four multi-day residencies this summer and early fall. We applied for and received a grant for partial funding for the project from the Arts in Health Care program of the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Irish harper, singer and dancer Regina Delaney of Exeter was the first of the artists in residence at The Morrison. She spent three days in June working with elders and staff in individual and group workshops. She'll return in August for another two days of training workshops, performances and visits with residents, demonstrating how easy and powerful it is to incorporate music in individual care plans - and to use it in public spaces.

On Wednesday, writer Leah Carey of Littleton held the first in a series of  writing and storytelling workshops for residents, staff and family members; she'll be back July 7, 14, and 21. The stories that are being told paint a picture of life at The Morrison and will be woven into a performance piece that will be presented in a public reading at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, July 28. Staff from other facilities, along with family, friends and community members, are invited to attend.

On August 17-20, The Morrison will welcome Saori weaver Bobbi Herron of Penacook. She'll bring both standing looms and lap looms, and staff and residents will be invited to take a turn at the Saori-style of improvisational weaving that requires no predetermined patterns and allows even people with severe limitations to participate and feel a sense of accomplishment and community. A woven banner will be created as a permanent installation; it will be unveiled in a public ceremony on Friday, August 20.

September brings back dancer and educator Jeanne Limmer of North Conway, who will.lead simple movement exercises with residents and also provide daily movement and relaxation sessions for staff as well as reflection times when they can discuss integrating movement exercises into daily care routines.

Watch this space and area newspapers for information about community participation opportunities during the residencies. Family and community members, along with local artists, are invited to become involved as observers and volunteers.. Artists who might be interested in working with the elderly are invited to take advantage of mentoring opportunities with the visiting artists. Both The Morrison and Arts Alliance want to expand their volunteer programs and the artist series is a wonderful way to receive specific training in incorporating the arts in work with the elderly.

Staff development and training workshops will also be held for staff from other nursing homes, from senior centers, assisted living facilities, hospice and adult day-care programs, so that they can learn easy-to-incorporate tools and techniques for developing and sustaining arts-based programs that will have a positive impact on their elders' intellectual, emotional, social and creative development.

Anyone who would like additional information about the Arts & Health program or who might want to participate in one or more workshops or attend a performance can contact me at 837-2275 or We'll be posting our Arts & Health for Seniors at The Morrison informational brochure on the web next week.

Wishing you a wonderful holiday weekend of festivals, parades, barbecues, fireworks, family and friends!

Photo: Irish harper Jeanne Limmer is accompanied by Morrison resident Esther Webb on the bodhran.

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