Art therapy for the soul: Art for art's sake

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Eagle Meadows resident Beverly Berggren smiles while showing others a gold and green glitter ornament she made during art therapy sessions.

WALLA WALLA - When an individual has suffered torn ligaments or a broken back, a trip to the physical therapist often follows. Many children visit speech therapists to aid them in overcoming a debilitating stutter. Yet, as important as these forms of treatments are, traditional therapy is usually concerned with healing the body, not the soul. For many residents living at Eagles Meadows Assisted Living Community in College Place, an interesting and novel form of therapy has become a regular and integral part of their lives.

Vicki Puller is in the internship phase of her master's degree in art therapy and counseling from Southwestern College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the residency portion of her program, Puller is working with residents at Eagle Meadows, providing them with a creative outlet to tell younger family members about their rich life experiences. Many of the arts and crafts that Puller has administered are much more than a simple way to fill time. Instead, it has become part of a holistic healing process for dozens of residents, many of whom struggle with deep wounds that traditional therapy cannot heal.

Puller, a veteran of the Vietnam War and the mother of an Iraq War veteran suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, certainly understands how other forms of treatments are often needed to take care of problems that lie beneath the surface. She explained that the body heals itself but that the heart needs a little help.

"Healing takes place in the present time rather than the past," Puller shared. "Art therapy requires [residents] to stay present and focused. It helps the mind clear, and the heart slow down and then they stay focused during the whole process.

Diane Miller, a longtime Walla Walla resident, is the life engagement director at Eagle Meadows, responsible for providing activities and outings for the seniors. She explained the benefits of the art therapy directive as well as how it has brought happiness to residents, staff, and relatives.

"They have done creations that could be in museums," she said. "It really brings out the art in each resident. It keeps them wanting to come back to it. It has really brought out the skills and talents in every individual, whether or not they even know they have them."

One of the recent art projects that the seniors have been working on has been decoupage plates-carefully applying a photo, picture, or fabric cutout to a clear glass dish. Some have used them to serve cookies or cake and all the residents who have been involved have created more than one plate each. Many residents will be giving their plates away as Christmas presents, to a younger family member, keen to learn more about their life story.

"The relatives have definitely been impressed, really impressed with what they're doing. Words can't describe it," Miller continued.

Puller listed some other reasons why the directive has been a success with the seniors, and also with the staff too.

"In choosing what goes on the plate, and to do it from beginning to end, it proved to be more popular than I thought," Puller said. "[The staff] were surprised with how many residents came down and were part of the directive, even those they never thought would."

"It's really great to see the lights come on and stay on, [the residents] have purpose in the morning," she continued. "It's not just a daily routine. It's rejuvenating me too. Art heals. It's a way to give part of themselves to their family-their grandchildren, their children-a part of them goes into the plate."

Puller described the joy in seeing part of the personality of each student come through in the plates they design. Soon, she expects her students will also include the staff of Eagle Meadows Assisted Living Community, not just those who live there.

"I plan to do the same project with the staff, because it allows them to focus on the residents who they have lost. It's been thoroughly rewarding. Art therapy rewards all people equally."

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