While working as a nurse assistant in a skilled nursing facility, Bethany Blanchard was struck by the unmet leisure and social participation needs of the facility’s residents.
“Again and again as a nurse assistant, I witnessed the depression and frustration that older adults often experience when they no longer participate in activities that they value because of age-related health limitations or financial and transportation/mobility barriers,” says Blanchard, an occupational therapy student at Boston University’s Sargent College of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences. “Frequently, the older adults that I cared for explained to me that the activities that were available to them, such as bingo, were either uninteresting or infantilizing.”
As a Schweitzer Fellow, Blanchard has dedicated herself to changing that. Drawing on her training as a visual artist, she launched an art instruction program for residents of Irving B. Matross Covenant House—a program aimed not just at providing challenging, creative leisure activities, but also at promoting cross-cultural interaction among older adults who are at risk for social isolation due to cultural and language barriers. Blanchard’s ultimate goal? To create a self-sustaining art program that empowers older adults to assume leadership roles in their community.
Why did you decide to develop your particular project?
As a visual artist and occupational therapy student, I was eager to develop a project that would enable me to use my art training to improve the quality of life of older adults who have limited access to activities that they enjoy.
The older adult population particularly interested me because of my past experiences working as a nurse assistant in a skilled nursing facility. Though I could do little to address residents’ unmet leisure and social participation needs as a nurse assistant, I saw an opportunity for art to provide this population with not only an age-appropriate, intellectually challenging activity, but also a welcoming social environment.
For me, art-making is powerful because it is both a deeply personal activity and a way to share one’s voice and vision with one’s community. As I have worked on my Schweitzer Fellowship project, it has been a great honor and privilege to collaborate with the residents of Covenant House, to share with them the joy and challenge of making art, and to see an art community develop.
What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?
On an individual scale, I hope that the older adults who have been participating in the art program at Covenant House will have increased confidence in, and awareness of, their own skills and abilities. I hope, too, that they will have a greater awareness of the needs in their own community and the ways in which they can serve their neighbors within Covenant House.
I am already beginning to see progress toward this goal. Currently, I am collaborating with one of the experienced artists living at Covenant House to develop art curricula that will be inclusive and accessible for individuals who have fine motor difficulties and who have limited fine arts experience.
Although the study of art can be a satisfying journey of self-discovery, the ultimate goal of the program is not merely the personal edification of individual Covenant House residents. Rather, I hope that my project provides the older adults living at Covenant House with the opportunity and support to develop group-centered leadership skills—to use their gifts not just for themselves, but for others.
On a broader scale, I hope that the end result of my project is a community of artists and art enthusiasts that continues to meet together long after my year as a Schweitzer Fellow concludes. I hope that the program creates a context where people of various ethnic or cultural backgrounds gather to enjoy each other’s company and learn from one another.
Also, as I recruit volunteers to support and sustain the art program at Covenant House, I hope that my project provides Boston-area art students an opportunity to use their art training and passion for the arts in a meaningful way. When I studied art as an undergraduate student, volunteer opportunities that utilized my art skills and training were rare, and I think that Boston art students may constitute an untapped demographic—a group ready and willing to use their time and talents to help others in their community.
What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?
Certainly, one of the most pressing health-related issues of our time concerns preventing disease and promoting independence among older adults—the fastest-growing population in the United States. Given that this population will continue to increase as the baby boomer generation ages, addressing the health needs and minimizing health care costs for older adults will remain a major focus for our health care system.
I feel that though much has been said about preventing diseases through exercise and other physical activities, improving quality of life and minimizing the risk of mental illnesses like depression—a common diagnosis among older adults—have been underemphasized. From the occupational therapy perspective, the obvious response to these risks is to promote older adults’ participation in meaningful “occupations” by addressing the barriers that limit their participation in valued activities.
Some of these barriers are daunting. For example, poor disability accessibility in Boston’s public transit system often limits community participation for older adults with mobility challenges. However, perhaps the most formidable barrier is the stigma and cultural attitudes that dismiss the values, interests, and capabilities of older adults.
Older adults themselves may underestimate their own capabilities. As I have worked on my project at Covenant House, I have observed older adults themselves cite “I’m too old” as a reason that they cannot participate in art activities. I would like to see more skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, and “adult day care” centers feature programming that treats older adults as adults—that actually offer age-appropriate activities and opportunities for leadership development and community service.
Though some barriers may take a great deal of time to fully address, such as poor accessibility in our public transportation system, changes in our culture’s expectations for older adults may go a long way toward improving community programs and participation for this population.
What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow so far?
Probably the most surprising element of my experience as a Schweitzer Fellow thus far is that what I perceived to be weaknesses in my project have actually strengthened and supported my efforts toward reaching my project goals. For example, I was initially concerned that my inability to speak Russian and Chinese would be a major barrier to working with residents who speak Russian and Chinese as their primary languages.
However, my dependence on bilingual residents for translation while conducting art class sessions actually helped create a collaborative environment from the very beginning of the art program. The language barrier essentially prompted bilingual Covenant House residents to step up and use their language expertise for the benefit of the whole group.
Because the primary goal of my project is to help older adults assume leadership roles in their community, this liability turned out to be an asset to the project.
Even as I am trying to help Covenant House residents develop as leaders in their community, I have learned a lesson about leadership myself: demonstrating good leadership is not about being the expert all the time. My project, and the older adults with whom I am collaborating, are teaching me that being a leader often means knowing when to get out of the way.
What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?
I am thankful every day that I get to work on my project. I feel so privileged to collaborate with the talented and dedicated artists at Covenant House, and I am excited to see what we will accomplish together as the Fellowship year unfolds. It is also a thrill for me to have the opportunity to develop a program that combines my two passions—art and occupational therapy—and I look forward to using what I learn to develop further art-based occupational therapy endeavors as I move forward in my career.
Beyond my excitement about my particular project, participating in Schweitzer Fellowship activities has been personally and professionally invigorating. The monthly meetings have been especially valuable to me as an opportunity to put aside the day-to-day concerns of graduate school and focus on the bigger picture—the issues that motivated me to pursue a health care profession in the first place.
It has been wonderful, too, to discuss and debate with Fellows from other disciplines, who have similar goals but maintain different perspectives. The creativity, commitment, and amazing work of other Fellows have been so inspiring in my first few months in the Fellowship. Similarly, the expectation from everyone at ASF for excellence, intentionality, and sustainability in every aspect of our projects not only inspires and motivates me in my work at Covenant House, but will impact the way I approach all of my future community service endeavors.
Bethany Blanchard is a Schweitzer Fellow in Boston, MA. Click here to read more about the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Blanchard it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to the Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Blanchard’s efforts to empower older adults through art-making, click here.
Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.