How art therapy can help our elderly as we emerge from Covid-19

Support as we emerge from Covid is vital for our elderly, so says Patrick Byrne, an art psychotherapist
How art therapy can help our elderly as we emerge from Covid-19

Art therapist Patrick Byrne.

ART psychotherapist, Patrick Byrne, says our elderly population has “possibly suffered the most since the pandemic landed on our shores over a year ago”.

He believes that the provision of emotional support as we begin to emerge from Covid-19 “is crucial” for the wellbeing of all our population, and particularly for our ageing population.

Patrick is the resident art psychotherapist at the Carrigaline Family Centre. He also has a private practice in Wilton.

For elderly people, he is also offering one-to-one therapy in their homes.

Patrick’s practice “is complementary to counselling and is influenced and underpinned by psychotherapeutic theoretical frameworks and treatment interventions”.

He stresses that you don’t have to be good at art to avail of art psychotherapy or ‘creative’ psychotherapy.

He is all too aware of the plight of the elderly, who were initially advised to cocoon and who had to isolate themselves from others this past year and a half. For many older people, who were living in isolation, it really affected their mental health.

“I know that from my practice and from my instinct as an art psychotherapist.”

For some older people, admitting to having depression can be hard as they see it as having a stigma. Asking for help with their mental health wouldn’t be culturally part of their tradition.

“If you think about the Ireland they grew up in, they were not encouraged to talk about feelings and emotions. They weren’t aware of them. They probably just didn’t have time, living their lives and rearing their children. They hold a lot of their emotions and feelings because they have nowhere to express them.

“Not expressing them can result in them coming out in different ways. It could be arguing with a family care-giver,” said Patrick.

Aware of what older women may have experienced in their past informs Patrick’s practice.

“Years ago, women didn’t have much of a life. There was no birth control so they had large families and no freedom.”

The wisdom that comes with age is something Patrick is keen to acknowledge.

“Older people may not have an opportunity to share their wisdom. We live in quite an ageist society compared to say Spain and Italy where the elderly are very much part of the community.”

We also live in a time of rolling negative news. Patrick advises his clients to limit their exposure to the news cycle.

“I tell people that I see to turn off the radio and to listen to the news just once a day. They should go out for a walk, bake a cake, do something that is creative.

“My TV has been broken since last year. I watch films on DVDs at night. I listen to the radio at 9am — and that’s it.”

Patrick, who graduated a few years ago from the Crawford Art College in art psychotherapy as a mature student, is well qualified to work with the elderly. His master’s thesis, which he completed in 2019, is entitled ‘An Exploration of Home-based Art Therapy Model in Elder Care as a Complementary Alternative to Traditional Art Therapy Spaces.’ In researching his thesis, Patrick discovered that not everybody wants to go into a day care centre.

“Not everyone wants to come to my practice for a number of reasons. An elderly person might have disabilities or be home-bound. So I’m offering them the choice of having art therapy in their own house.”

“When I meet the elderly person initially, there is an assessment. They (or a guardian) will give me a bit of background information. Then, I’ll practise in their house in a room that is private. I’ll have a notion of what is going on for the person and what their concerns are. Something from their past could be triggering them. It could be to do with an attachment issue or where they are with their family.

“We hold and carry a lot of trauma in ourselves from our past. A lot of stuff comes from the elderly person’s past. I help them to regulate their emotions through different types of interventions.”

For example, Patrick might ask the elderly client to imagine living on a deserted island and state what they would need to survive there.

“They might make an image of an island. I would look at the image, which might tell a story. An island can be reflective of yourself. It can be about survival.”

The client might draw a fire on the island, or drinking water, or a strong shelter in which to live: “It can reveal that the person has a sense of survival. For some people I work with, that’s really important.”

Patrick says that an important part of his work with clients is simply listening to them. As a cancer survivor, the 57-year-old is empathetic: “I have a lifetime of experience and I’ve invested about €5,000 in my own counselling.”

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