Since we, as seniors, are a population that is swelling and will consequently impact the medical system, the National Institute on Aging (NIA) sponsored a pilot program called Vital Visionaries that was originally created by Johns Hopkins College of Medicine in conjunction with the American Visionaries Art Museum. The goal was to enhance communication between young medical students and local seniors of 65 years of age or older and to promote positive attitudes toward the field of geriatrics and as well as in the treatment of the aging population in private practice. This initial 2004 pilot design was so successful that NIA partnered with the Society for the Arts in Health Care (SAH) in 2005-6 to replicate it nationally at 4 additional sites. Center for the Arts in Health Care Research and Education (CAHRE) was selected as one of the sites and collaborated with The Harn Museum of Art, the University of Florida College of Medicine and the Sante Fe Community College Prime Time Institute. I encourage you to access the video link at http://www.arts.ufl.edu/CAHRE/vitalvisionaries.asp).
It is an incredibly creative initiative monitored by pre and post evaluations with measurable results. Consisting of a total of four carefully orchestrated sessions, the first session begins with pairing the medical student and the elder. They must find each other in a group by effectively communicating information about the matching art print that each received. What a great icebreaker concept for event planners! Then the pair, as a team, visits the museum and works together to develop descriptive words and phrases that describe the art exhibit that they shared. The elements of this literary expression are then developed into poetry. Finally the poetry is translated to dance and, although the participants are encouraged, the dance is primarily performed by other people of different ages in response to their poetry reading. Music is provided to enhance the poetic interpretation and as a resource for movement.
Through these interactive art experiences, the young and old learn that art can bridge differences and promote similarities. It is an intergenerational communication that develops gently at first but moves with the stride of a partnership by the final session and demonstrates the ability to change and adapt to new and positive experiences. Cathy De Witt, Music Coordinator/Musician in Residence at Shands Arts in Medicine, provided the original musical elements to integrate the poetry with dance. Regarding the bonding of the participants, she says “ …It's the kind of communication that used to take place with families; you don’t have the extended families living with each other as much anymore so it is a rare opportunity to have this experience, or for some it may be an extension of a relationship with grandparents”.
As a result of the success of Vital Visionaries, the University of Chicago School of Medicine, with their partnering art museum, is offering it as a course. This is the first academic seed that hopefully will be followed by many other institutions to teach and guide the lessons of Vital Visionaries.