Art in Assisted Living Facilities, May 07 | Betsy Huffsmith Teaches Art to Seniors



Betsy Huffsmith works with Charlotte Lake at SunnyBrook Assisted Living facility in Fairfield. (Photo copyright 2007 by Gabe Walker)

There’s always a pivotal point of inspiration when a worthwhile project makes you want to jump in feet first and offer to help. That moment came for me on an unusually warm morning in March as I sat basking in the sun with my friend Betsy Huffsmith at Revelations, a favorite coffee hangout in Fairfield. We were discussing the upcoming 1st Fridays Art Walk on May 4, 2007, which will feature a silent auction of work by a remarkable group of artists that Betsy mentors.

Betsy is a well-known local artist, teacher of art, and long-time contributor to Fairfield’s monthly art walks, established five years ago to feature the work of an expanding group of local artists. She has a studio next to mine on the town square. (During my mid-life “whatever” I discovered to my surprise I too could draw and paint).

Betsy is an inspiration. She is passionate about art, and her enthusiasm is infectious. “I love teaching,” she says emphatically. For 15 years she has been sharing her expertise in watercolor, acrylic, and tile painting with students of all ages. But her face really lights up when she talks about teaching art by collaborating with senior residents at Fairfield’s SunnyBrook Assisted Living facility.

Five years ago, Betsy met the late Don Kerr through the “Adopt A Grandparent” program at Parkview Care Center. This was the beginning of Betsy’s involvement in teaching art at senior care facilities. She was so impressed with the drawings of the farm he used to live on she asked if he would like to learn to paint. His eager response was all it took to get Betsy started.

Bringing art into assisted living facilities is now a national trend. Art One, which was started in Washington, DC, by art historian Joan Hart, draws inspiration from artists like Matisse, who worked from his wheelchair till age 81, and Claude Monet, who continued painting into his 80s even with encroaching blindness. This program explores how these artists created great work in spite of aging, chronic pain, and other health challenges faced by many older adults. Hart’s mission to bring the beauty and inspiration of art to elderly Americans recognizes that many seniors aren’t mobile enough to visit museums and so brings the museum to them through slides and discussion of art and artists.

A month after our coffee date, I join Betsy and her students at SunnyBrook. Each resident in her program arrives at half hour intervals for a one-on-one session.

Eighty-seven-year-young Clifford Parcell walks in smiling and joking. He is a lifelong resident of Iowa. I ask Clifford if this is his first experience with art. “Well, no,” he grins, “I won a second place art prize in third grade.” Now I’m grinning. Clifford moved into SunnyBrook last year on his doctor’s advice. What does Clifford’s family think of his talent, I ask? “John, my son in Iowa City says he didn’t know I was that much of a painter.” Clifford joined Betsy about five months ago. “She talked me into it,” he kids. He’s a fast learner who moves the brush steadily and easily across the paper, creating a vibrant floral still life he later names My Wife’s Flower Garden.

Other residents arrive with the aid of a walker, or the help from an aid. The final student, Charlotte Lake, is in a wheelchair. Betsy’s interaction with each resident is amazing. Together, they select an image to paint from Betsy’s portfolio, the choice triggered from memories of a place they have lived or a bouquet of flowers received from a loved one. Their work is focused and multi-layered as Betsy gives her undivided attention to each resident for the entire half hour. Students use a big thirsty wet brush, on acid-free paper, and the work is vibrant and fluid with a loose, spontaneous, impressionistic feel. Throughout the session Betsy showers praise on her students, helping to overcome any doubts or hesitancy. “It’s a blast to paint with them,” Betsy exclaims. “I love it.”

Soon after I arrive, Betty Howell, owner of SunnyBrook, comes in. We talk about the effect of the program on her residents. “Even those that have never painted before get a sense of accomplishment and self-esteem,” Betty remarks. “Our residents with dementia feel this as well; these sessions have a tremendously calming effect on them.”

I tell Betsy and Betty about my mother, Tress Overby, a lifelong artist, who blessed her family and friends with paintings and hand-painted cards well into her late 80s, after moving to an assisted living facility. These are treasures my brother John and I have hoarded, and passed on to Tress’s grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Betsy gives me a stack of paintings including work by Clifford, Susie Thomas, Ana Galdos, and Charlotte Lake to look over. I am thinking there are several here I wish I had done. But if I didn’t paint them, I at least want to own one. There are landscapes and still lifes even the Fauves would be envious of. The composition and colors are brilliant. I mention this to Sheila Ross, who is visiting her mother, Charlotte Lake, Betsy’s final student of the day. Sheila quickly reminds me that I can acquire one from the silent auction at the upcoming May Art Walk.

On May 4, 2007, Iowa State Bank on the Fairfield square is hosting the exhibit and silent auction of work by SunnyBrook residents along with artwork by Fairfield High School students. Art is one activity that remains appropriate for all ages, so it’s doubly cool that SunnyBrook and Fairfield High School artists are sharing space for this exhibit. The exhibit opens to the public at 6:30 p.m., after family members get the first chance on bidding. The exhibition and auction will continue until May 18. All money raised will go to funding Betsy’s project at SunnyBrook.

Make plans to visit Fairfield for the exhibition. You’ll be amazed by what Betsy and these emerging talents are contributing with a living legacy that enriches our lives as well as their own.