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Art and Friendship Make Powerful Tools to Fight Ageism

College students and older adults become 'pals' in this creative arts program

Part of the Artful Aging Special Report

“Whom would I meet? What would I say? Would I seem dorky?” These were Rena Berlin’s concerns before she met her Partner in Art Learning, the new “pal” she’d been matched with through a program that pairs a college student with an older adult to create art.

“For the first time in my life I really felt like a senior,” says the 68-year-old educator from Richmond, Va., with a laugh. “They were transporting a small group of us from the Weinstein Jewish Community Center in a van to the Visual Arts Center of Richmond. A van. That mean’s you’re getting old. I was also nervous.”

It turns out she had nothing to worry about. “After my PAL and I got started, it was amazing,” she says.

The students aren’t 'helping' the older adults; rather they’re working together as peers.

Erasing Stereotypes

Berlin was recalling her experience with PALETTE, which stands for  Promoting Art for Life Enrichment Through Transgenerational Engagement. It’s a big acronym for a program founded by Sadie Rubin that brings together lots of big ideas to fight ageism and promote artful aging.

A social worker by training, Rubin thought her career trajectory would lead to directing a nursing home. Instead, she initiated a series of classes that connect older adults, students and teachers who, together, create art.

“While building PALETTE, I drew from the philosophy of the late psychiatrist, Dr. Gene Cohen, who believed that creativity enriches our lives at every stage,” Rubin says.

PALETTE’s mission is to connect students with active, older adults and help erase the stereotypes young people may have about aging. The students aren’t “helping” the older adults; rather they’re working together as peers.

Neutral Territory

PALETTE’s main academic partner is Virginia Commonwealth University. Students from the school’s pharmacy, physical therapy, dentistry, social work and dance and choreography departments can earn a credit for signing up to be part of a PAL team. Each cohort involves 20 students, 20 older adults and an instructor. (There have been five cohorts since the inception of  PALETTE, which is funded by the Geriatric Training & Education initiative, administered by the Virginia Center on Aging and appropriated by the Virginia General Assembly, in January 2014.)

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PALETTE in Motion participants learn mirrored movements and choreography

“The goal is to eliminate ageism and preconceived notions the participants may have,” Rubin explains. That’s why the classes are held on “neutral ground.”

Says Rubin: “If the university students were traveling to a senior center, they might think, ‘Oh, I’m going to be with old people,’ and that would put the older and younger participants on uneven ground. Forming true relationships would be more difficult.”

Painting and Dancing

The Visual Arts Center of Richmond provides the space for visual arts classes, which include painting, printmaking, clay and fiber arts. Each pair of PALs is set up next to each other with, for instance, two canvasses and two paint palettes.

“Conversation comes naturally when you’re working side-by-side,” Rubin says. “First you talk about what you’re doing, and then as you get comfortable, you go on to different, more personal topics.”

Dancing is offered, too. The PALETTE in Motion program operates slightly differently, with two or three students for every older adult.

“In the beginning I had the idea that having more young people around would bolster the sense of the studio being a ‘safe place,’” says Melanie Richards, an associate professor in the school’s department of Dance and Choreography and the movement instructor for the PALETTE in Motion classes. “But by the second class, I could tell that the seniors felt no sense of frailty, and the students didn’t see their PALs as physically limited either.”

Richards, who is 69 and has been dancing for more than 50 years, found out about the program through an email to faculty and was put in contact with Rubin.

Same Page

“I was afraid my ideas were kind of ‘innocent,’” Richards remembers. But she discovered she and Rubin agreed about everything. To begin with, Richards says, she was specific that she wasn’t envisioning an exercise program.

“I didn’t want the class to be purpose- or task-driven,” Richards explains. “I wanted to explore the potential of everyone in the space to have the experience what it was like to choreograph.”

In each session, everyone comes in as “equals,” Richard says. “With choreography you work with levels, and each makes a statement.”

One time, the class explored pulse, concentrating on how pulse creates accents in movement. Another time the students experimented with “nearing.” People moved in and out of being a leader of the sculptural formation of the small group of bodies.

“I think my age made the seniors realize that anyone can access motion. It can be within your own capacity. It was less intimidating to them that I wasn’t a 30-year-old ballet princess,” Richards observes. “People really encountered a situation with no expectations and no judgment.”

Because people who are moving around are less likely to have conversations about anything other than what they’re doing, Rubin made sure to add a social component at the end of each session. “That helped it become a community,” she says.

The PALETTE in Motion classes culminate with a showcase event where the participants demonstrate the movements and “body sculptures” they have made over the weeks. And Richards has more ambitious ideas.

“I’m thinking of group experience where the class would make a folk dance that would include a movement created by each participant. Each day at the end of the session, they would add another movement, and at the end of the semester, the whole community will dance, young and old together,” Richards says.

Mutual Benefits

The idea of the students working with older adults remains the foundation of the program, and Rubin says it’s marvelous to watch the various young people who have participated. While Rubin will agree that some young people are more naturally drawn to working with older adults than others, she also sees interest and enthusiasm from a wide swath of the students to whom the program is available.

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College students and older adults work on their creations side-by-side

“When I ask the students why they are enrolling, lately a lot of them are saying, ‘My friend says I have to do this,” Rubin says. “That in itself means that what we are doing with PALETTE is working. It means the young people are interested in being with older adults in a non-traditional way, that they have dropped any preconceived negative constructs about how seniors function in our world.”

Matthew Hornsby, a pharmacy student, says he enjoyed a great connection with his grandparents while growing up, but still had to step outside his comfort zone when signing up for the program. “I was a bit nervous the first day — but then I met my PAL, Rena Berlin, and we’re both big talkers, so that helped,” Hornsby says.

Hornsby feels that PALETTE has given him valuable insight that he’ll use in his career. “Knowing that age is really nothing, that you can have great friendships regardless of how old you are means that I’ll have a different attitude,” he says. “I’ll know how to listen and how to develop important interactions.”

In turn, being a PAL with Hornsby has changed Berlin’s attitude toward the pharmacists she has always taken for granted. “I can’t believe how much Matthew knows and how hard he is working. Because I met Matthew, I now have no problem asking a pharmacist questions, and that may affect the quality of my life as I get older,” Berlin says.

For more information about PALETTE or to contact Sadie Rubin for ideas about starting a similar program in your area, visit the PALETTE website.

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