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Med Students' Vision of Elderly Challenged Through Art

One stereotype about old people is that they are frail and that their creative powers are behind them. Medical students, who almost always see seniors at their worst, can be especially prone to this view. Vital Visionaries is out to change all that. It's a national pilot program that pairs up medical students and senior citizens in prestigious museums to learn about, and create, art together.

The Museum of Modern Art - or MoMA, for short - is famous for its unparalleled collection of art, which includes every major 20th century artist from Picasso to Jackson Pollock, and from Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns.

But because appreciating that art can be a wonderful way for people to learn about and understand each other, the museum is also a perfect venue for the National Institute on Aging's Vital Visionaries program. "Art is a great 'leveler,' a great 'equalizer,'" says Francesca Rosenberg, director of MoMA's Community and Access Programs.

"One of the goals is for the medical students to spend time with older people and to get to know one another, and raise awareness and counter any negative stereotypes they have," Rosenberg says. Another goal is for older adults "to see themselves as creative and vital and to understand that that kind of creativity is possible at any age."

Mathew Garrett, a second year medical student at Columbia University who has just completed the pilot Vital Visionaries program, admits that his experience in hospitals had given him a skewed perception of older people.

"Most of them are senile," he says. "They are not in control of their bodily functions. They are sick. So it's not hard to get a view of senior citizens as being feeble, confused, difficult to talk to."

Garrett says that coming to MoMA was a great opportunity "to see, not only normal seniors, but actually very sharp, articulate, impressive, intelligent seniors. It was a 'balancing experience.'"

Every public program at MoMA involves looking at art. In MoMA's Vital Visionaries pilot, that happened in pairs. Fourteen medical students partnered off with 14 senior citizens, and together they viewed art in the galleries and discussed it. Garrett was struck by the imaginative ways the seniors interpreted the art, as when he and his partner were shown Dancers At the Dance, by the French painter Henri Matisse.

"As medical students, we are very scientifically-oriented," Garrett says. "A typical medical student comment might be 'I see three dancers in this painting.' Whereas the senior citizens were much more literary and figurative and would actually describe a scene and an emotion and what happened before and after and what the artist might have been feeling at the time."

The pairs also created art collages together - a process that inspired Rose Roberts, a fiery 84-year-old redhead.

"You put together combinations of things, or items to create a topic or a subject," she explains. "They gave us pieces of cardboard and little stones, all kinds of things we could make the collage with, and it was up to us to use our creativity." Roberts loves lavender. "And so my collage was a study in lavender. I have it displayed at home. So I was very proud of that."

Vivian Peters, 80, a retired travel agent, says that being creative with someone was a great way to become friends. She says she and her partner, Janice, who is from Taiwan worked well together. "We had a lot of laughs and a lot of fun. Particulary, when it came to the collage. We'd say 'let's do this!' 'How about that?' 'Do you like this color?' 'Is that object fitting into the pattern?' We had a wonderful give and take."

For one collage, the partners were told to cut out images from magazines and newspapers that would visually describe their partnership. Mathew Garrett says this was a tough assignment, at first, owing to their different histories and lifestyles.

"I am a cowboy from Utah and Joan grew up in World War II England and sells vitamin door to door," he chuckles. But the two did find a few things they had in common. "As it turns out, we are both ballroom dancers. So we actually got two images - Yoda and the Pillsbury Dough Boy - to dance foxtrot across our collage. I am kind of pasty and I like biscuits; she's old, wise and powerful. So as a pair that really captured us."

The National Institute on Aging reports that some Vital Visionary participants have made symbolic art about the program itself. One made a floral arrangement with a twisted shrub because, in her words, "like some of us, it's gnarled but there's still plenty of life in it." The work also featured daisies, symbolizing the fresh attitudes of the students, and the different colored leaves of an Aucuba plant were included to represent the mingling of young and old.