The colors of love

A teacher who brought the joy of art to an elderly home has written a book about what she learned.

art 88 (photo credit: )
art 88
(photo credit: )
On visiting a geriatric home and seeing elderly people staring into space, being spoonfed like babies and living a dependent wheelchair existence, one wants to turn away. "Will that be my parents - or me - in a few decades?" is the thought that comes to mind. Everyone wants to enjoy their final years blessed by good health, satisfaction and productivity. But some people, like Jerusalem art therapist Naomi Gaffni, do not cringe at the sight of infirmity. As a gift to her mother, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her father, who became frail after a stroke, Gaffni volunteered to give weekly art lessons in the Tel Aviv old age home where they lived, and she persevered for three years. Although we might shrug and ask what people could get out of such things at their age, Gafni took her lessons seriously, and mourned when any of her students passed away. In a 106-page, paperback called Lalechet El Hatzva'im: Tziur Ke'emtza'i Lezikna Yetziratit (Go to the Colors: Painting and Drawing in Creative Aging), Gaffni has written a moving account of her experience. Published by ESHEL, the Joint Distribution Committee's nonprofit Association for Planning and Development of Services for the Aged in Jerusalem, the book not only offers pointers on how to enrich the existence of the institutionalized elderly, but also fortifies the reader so that on his next encounter with such people, he will not want to look away. "Experts, researchers and caregivers are unanimous in the importance of creativity in old age," writes ESHEL directorgeneral Dr. Yitzhak Brick in his introduction. "Artistic work such as drawing, sculpture, music, dance, theater, writing and others improves the quality of life and influences the health, mood, self image and social status of the elderly... Old people involved in creative work bring much knowledge and experience accumulated over many years. It often displays the depth and maturity that a person reaches at that stage of life. In fact, because old people are free of their other occupations, they can devote considerable emotional and intellectual forces to artistic work." THE AUTHOR does't even obscure decades-old conflicts with her own parents and siblings: She frankly relates that she's unwilling to host her parents in her Jerusalem home lest they resume the domineering and critical roles they played when she lived under their control. "Suddenly I understood why I chose to keep in contact with them via art in the place where they live. There, far from my birthplace [of Jerusalem], I find a respite from the fear; only there, in the protective environment of the old age home, do I stop feeling angry. I can soften up and even sometimes feel love." Since her parents were two of her pupils, Gaffni writes, "it was my privilege to describe in detail the complex experience of parent-child relationships when all are adults, and the great satisfaction one feels when it is possible to have an open dialogue. This late dialogue allows children to be their parents' teachers, while the parents serve as both pupils and critics." GAFFNI ORIGINALLY intended her book to be a technical guide to caregivers and counsellors, describing the process of teaching and the stages in which the elderly learned, Brick notes. But it turned out to be much more - a sensitive and personal diary describing her deeply felt connections with old people. Its potential audience is old people, caregivers, art teachers and virtually anyone who thinks about what it will mean to be elderly. The author said she based her methods on a technique she adapted from the German-Jewish researcher Victor Lowenfeld, who studied the stages of artistic development. The basic principles are that every small child - without exception - can draw. Drawing is part-and-parcel of the way a child learns to understand reality. A child starts by simplified sketching, and only when he succeeds at that stage goes on to produce realistic images with up to 10 objects, such as a house, tree, human, flower, bird, animal, boat, car and plane. Lowenfeld proved that children in all cultures begin drawing inexplicable, cutoff figures but then graduate to figures that can be identified. Most children in the world draw a house as a square with a triangle on top, whether they live in a thatched hut or a skyscraper. And when they reach adolescence, most stop developing their artistic abilities; only a minority continue to the a-schematic stage of drawing. Gaffni, who took responsibility for the course after herself going on pension, confesses that she had never before taught art to the institutionalized elderly, and had to go through a lot of trial and error before finding that the most successful method is that used for teaching young children. "We - my pupils and I - took the road together so it would be possible to develop [their talents]." HER MOTHER had a natural talent for drawing, but because of her childhood and adolescence in Europe, never had a chance to develop it. Naomi's talents were a source of pride and jealousy for her mother, who instead of making a collage out of colored pictures taken from magazines, drew carefree little pictures of a human figure with a cat's head or a mouse hitting a ball with its nose. Naomi's father even did some drawing, though his arm movements were limited due to his stroke. But residents other than her parents are just as important to her book. Albert Fuchs, at 96 the oldest pupil in her course, showed Gaffni a collection of drawings he had created half a lifetime ago in England. He was certainly not a beginner. When she gave the class a stiff form shaped like a duck in the hope they would trace it, Albert not only did so but plunked the bird into a blue-green lake along with trees and a house whose chimney emitted curls of smoke. When his art teacher learned he had died, she cried for him as she had not for many other people who had been much younger. To stimulate their imagination, Gaffni brought in naive paintings by Grandma Moses and Shalom of Safed. It is permissible for adults to draw in this simplified, childlike style, she thought, and it would encourage her elderly pupils. But she could clearly see in the drawings of those in the early stages of dementia the signs of their disease: Houses floated in the air or lacked sides, and trees with fuzzy tops did not stand straight. An octogenarian named Ben-Zion who had been lonely for a long time left his drawings in her bag and openly asked Naomi to visit him in his room. There, he made sexual advances even though he knew his teacher was married. She berated him gently but did not cut off contact in class. Nonetheless, he stopped coming to lessons; Gaffni learned that Ben-Zion had met a lively new female resident named Yocheved, and there were rumors that she would sneak into his room at night. "Apparently, even in an old age home, at such an age, one can find love." After Pessah one year, G a f f n i brought in some colorful ceramic cups and plates and encouraged her pupils to draw them. A bowl full of apples or a vase with flowers inspired some really lovely drawings after some of the pupils were able to progress from two-dimensional to three-dimensional images. Those who couldn't were presented with geometric figures and bright basic colors, black and white; the result was Mondrian-like. A new pupil was Shulamit, who had a number tattooed on her arm and insisted on calling her teacher "Mrs. Gaffni." She drew well, but waved off comments by her peers, insisting that only her teacher was qualified to voice an opinion. Gaffni learned that Shlomit came from Poland, had to leave school at a young age and worked in kitchens and as a house cleaner. Her family had been murdered in the Holocaust, and when she came to Israel, she married a widower whose children she raised. When he died, his family turned their backs on her, leaving her with no one and nothing but her room in the geriatric home. After a lot of encouragement and patience, Shulamit produced a wide variety of drawings that all included young, beautiful, well-dressed people linked by their arms but never looking at each other. "If I had pangs of conscience when I stopped teaching art in the old-age home, it was because of her." Gaffni writes. Finally, at the end of the volume, she reveals why she stopped giving her course: Her mother, sinking deeper into dementia, was transferred to an institution far away. In the preceding months, she went through "physical and mental suffering that she could barely stand. This week I am going to the old age home with the clear knowledge that Mother can't benefit from and can no longer use my gift." Naomi' mother never knew she was writing a diary, but Gaffni realized it was "an ongoing conversation with her." Naomi's mother was beyond awareness; her father declined terribly when his wife was taken from him, and was finally transferred to a rehabilitation hospital. With their chairs empty, she could no longer face the class. "My parents returned to me, with interest, the lessons I gave them with a lesson in the wisdom and feelings of happiness and sadness they aroused, but mostly a precious ability to get to know them in depth as adults and to discover their unique, internal and complicated world." The book, which costs NIS 50, can be purchased by e-mailing [email protected], calling Sigal at (02) 655-7551, or via