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Art programs for seniors help combat isolation and spur creativity

Al Liberatore Sr. is 100 years old. He served in the Navy during World War II, just stopped driving this year and lives independently.

He’s a father, a hard worker and now an artist.

“It just became a magnificent opportunity, because not only was it a creative expression for him, but it was a great time for us to spend together ... doing ... something really unusual for us," said his son, Al Liberatore Jr. "To sit down and think through writing a poem, or to sit side by side while we're each working on an art project and chit chat while we're doing it."

At the Oppenheim Healthy Aging Campus in West Scranton, Al Liberatore Sr. and Jr. participate in the Arts for Life Care Recipient and Caregivers Program. Professional artists rostered by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts teach two-hour long classes once a week.

“In all my life we had never done that sort of thing together," said Al Liberatore Jr., who is 58. "You would think that after decades together, you know everything about each other, but we really don't. We talked about other kinds of things and it was also fantastic for me, I mean, memories I will probably treasure for a lifetime."

It is one of many art-centered programs offered around the region and supported by state funding at senior and community centers. The classes help not only keep seniors sharp and discovering new skills and hobbies but to also battle feelings of isolation that can sometimes negatively impact adults later in life.

“The arts engage your mind fully and are cognitively challenging. So innately, there's more engagement, when there's more engagement, you're not sitting around feeling very isolated," said Dr. Catherine Richmond-Cullen.

She helped develop not only the Arts for Life program in Scranton but also the Academy for Creative Aging. The free, digital platform from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts offers a certificate of completion for teaching artists and on-demand video lessons for older adults. It launched in October.

While teaching at the University of Scranton, Richmond-Cullen conducted research about the impact of an artist-in-residence program on loneliness in senior citizens, 60 years and older. The study was supported by the Pennsylvania Department on Aging and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

“It was statistically verified that people indeed reported feelings of less loneliness," she said. "There were ancillary data gathered that stated people felt they had more friends, they felt healthier, they were happier, they never realized they had talents and they gained a sense of self respect, they felt smarter.”

Because of her research, she was asked to help create the Academy for Creative Aging, which was funded by the National State Arts Agency.

“There is great love and concern for older people. I think there are many agencies who provide activities for our senior citizens, but oftentimes, the activities are not ... high cognitive learning and creative learning," she said. "These are highly substantive lessons taught by really qualified professionals who understand brain based instruction as it pertains to adults 60 years and older.”

Artist Allison LaRussa is the Wright Center’s Director of Health Humanities. She also teaches art classes to seniors at the Oppenheim Center, in Carbondale and the Midvalley as well as with Telespond Senior Services.

"The projects I will do with the seniors will involve some type of mindfulness and maybe a little bit of breathing, maybe a little bit of something that would decrease their stress, or maybe process emotions are going through," she said.

Her classes include a variety of mediums: painting, charcoal and mixed media.

“A lot of them come in and they're hesitant and they're like 'well, I'm not a painter or I can't draw' and I'm like ... 'you don't need any experience, just have fun and express yourself'," LaRussa said. "Then once they let their guard down and do that, they come to find that they do have talent, or they do find something out about themselves, which is a really beautiful thing."

That hesitancy is a common theme.

“I'm not a great artist, but ... it's fun," said Cindy Opdyke at the Northern Columbia Community and Cultural Center. "It's fun to mess around and ... just learn different things."

Opdyke joined a group participating in the Arts for Seniors program this October who worked on a paper mosaic project led by fiber artist Gale Jones, who is a rostered artist with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

Monica Randell called herself a 'total learner.' She’s hoping to have something to show by the end of the class.

"We come here often and it's just something that, you know, entertain ourselves with and get together with others," said Randell.

At the Oppenheim Center, the participants usually start with a writing prompt. Next is a visual piece based on the prompt. Sometimes it's the opposite.

Liz Faust is one of the teachers. She is a mixed-medium artist and also rostered with the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

"This class is such a collaborative experience, having other people be energized by each other's ideas and be able to reflect their own stories through their artwork, or their own expression and experiences, and then have other people react to that and respond to their work," she said.

The students have lunch together. They discuss what they’re working on. If they’re not comfortable sharing, that’s okay, said Faust.

Throughout the course they look at professional artists' work and learn about art history.

Lillian Shust was her husband’s 24-7 caregiver. She joined the Arts for Life program on Day 1. She wanted him to get involved in something; he was uninterested at first.

“I'm ever so grateful to the teachers in this program. Because they drew out of my husband, things that I never envisioned that he would do," she said.

Shust's husband, Steven, passed away last year. She framed all the artwork he created in the class and made an art gallery out of a remodeled bathroom in her Jermyn home.

“They’re all hanging there and I look at them every day and say 'you did this Steve',” she said.

She keeps coming back to the class.

“I decided to stay with the program because it helped him so much. And I enjoyed going and doing all so and I just I just want to stay a part of it. Because I think it's a wonderful program,” she said.

Al Liberatore Sr. entered the Navy in 1942 and stayed on through the end of World war II in 1945. He was a motor machinist aboard the U.S.S. Nicholas.

“To anyone who will listen, he will tell you, it was the most important thing he's ever done," said Al Liberatore Jr. "It was the most important experience of his life.”

Al Liberatore Sr. sat next to his peers at the Care Givers and Care Recipients program on a Friday in October, detailing a mixed-medium piece he recently finished. Classical music playing in the background.

The artwork shows "ship number 449 transgressing through a very aggressive ocean," the elder Liberatore said.

“I couldn't believe what they drew out of him in that experience," said Al Liberatore Jr. "And it was a privilege of a lifetime to sit next to him and hear his stories and watch him write about it, and then watch him do that.”

The pandemic was trying for his father, said the younger Liberatore. His family started to see some cognitive decline. Al Liberatore Sr. has minimal health issues. He’s mobile.

“What is a danger to him is not feeling useful, feeling like a burden feeling like what do I have to get out of bed for in the morning," he said. “This art program in particular ... it gives them a way out of that."

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.