Art in aged care is more than just pleasing to the eye; it offers a therapeutic, stimulating and social environment for residents, helps with marketing and staff satisfaction and importantly, doesn’t have to put you in the red, writes Natasha Egan.
In 2004, the then CEO of Mercy Health set about making the provider’s aged care facilities and hospitals more welcoming, warm and hospitable through implementing an organisation-wide art strategy.
It resulted in an audit of existing art, a wish list and formal guidelines of what to place and where, and a policy to set aside a percentage of the build cost of any new project to incorporate artwork from the outset.
Rather than just making the place look appealing, the goal of art in care settings is to also provide a therapeutic and stimulating environment, says Dr John Ballard, who was CEO of Mercy Health from 2000 until 2011 and is now Associate Vice-Chancellor with the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.
An abstract piece hanging in one Mercy home painted by one of the sisters, a contemporary artist, provided this stimulation perfectly, he says. “Many of the residents of this place hated it and they would meet everyday to stand in front of it and talk about how much they hated it.”
The DON asked Ballard to move the work but he refused on the basis it was achieving exactly what good art should achieve. “It is stimulating strong emotions. It is giving people a reason to come together. It is causing them to cerebrate. It is making them critique,” he says. “If I took it away they would have missed it desperately.”
Getting stakeholders on board
Dr Ballard’s motives for championing artwork in care environments are based on a “whole body of literature on the therapeutic benefits of art.” The evidence suggests different types of art are better for different settings.
For example, people recovering from coronary artery bypass in an extended hospital stay do better if they have landscapes to view, while abstracts might not be suitable in a dementia unit or other setting with people experiencing mind-alerting events, he says.
A framework for what and where art is placed is important to give the strategy legitimacy, especially when it might be necessary to refuse a gift of art or to ensure the artwork matches the organisation’s values, says Dr Ballard. “When a person walks through the front door you want them to know who we are, what we do, what we stand for and that they are incredibly welcome and will be treated with compassion and hospitality.”
While residents were generally sold on the idea from the start, and even though there was evidence about the benefits of art in a care environment, Ballard says strong opposition came from many stakeholders including the owners, board members, finance department and staff.
“We’re not about artwork, we’re about care, was the initial response. The next response was we don’t have any art, which is abundantly not true. They just didn’t know they had art.”
Similarly, the finance staff said everything was too tight to waste money on art and staff were reluctant to move pieces that had always been in a particular place, he says.
To address this challenge Ballard engaged Roger Saddington to take the project further. Saddington is director of Art Strategies Australia, which has been specialising in providing art consultancy services to the health and aged care sectors for over a decade.
Saddington started by identifying, cataloguing, photographing, assessing and valuing what was already there. Ballard went back to the board, taking Saddington along to present the findings as an asset audit. That was how he got it on the agenda, Ballard says.
When Roger Saddington gave his presentation it “brought into clarity this was all about care and respect for the person, respect for the setting and how we can care more holistically for the person,” says Ballard.
The owners and board immediately “embraced the project heartily”, followed by the bean counters. And once the staff realised it was about making a better setting to work and provide care in, they also became more supportive of it, he continues.
Building a strategy
Art Strategies Australia offers traditional art consultancy, such as sourcing artwork through galleries and private channels, as well as customised print solutions produced in-house.
Saddington, who is also an artist, had researched the benefits of art in health settings but found there was a lack of suitable printed artwork available and set about designing and producing in-house material ideal for clients in health and aged care.
“When I go to see new clients I will take into account the demographics of the resident population. But I always say to the clients in health and aged care, landscape is a huge consideration for you. You must have landscape because that’s what this research is telling us,” Saddington says.
It is about bringing the most convincing and pleasant evocations of the outside world in, which is especially necessary for those people unable to go outside into the real world, he says. In addition to providing therapeutic benefits, an art strategy can be used to implement way finders and memory lanes.
For example, at a site with an interior circular configuration Saddington came up with the idea of putting different themes in each of the four corridors to help residents find their way and reduce disorientation.
At a facility in Melbourne, Saddington ran a series of flower images along the north corridor, pictures of beautiful gardens with mature trees in another, with the remaining two corridors featuring memory lanes.
For that he sourced a series of Australian vintage posters from the 30s and 40s, which correlated to the era of those living in the facility, for the east corridor. The final walkway was filled with historical photographs of the city of Melbourne from the 20th century.
“There was quite a tour to be had from actually finding your way around these four different themes as you moved about each day,” he says.
Incorporating the artwork in tours is a popular option for staff running activity programs, Saddington says. For example, it could involve activity coordinators getting the residents to walk around and look for chrysanthemums in the pictures, he says.
“It also touches on that concept of bringing the outside in, particularly if we’re dealing with aspects of the local area or landscapes that mimic the area outside the facility,” he says.
When looking at where to place art, Saddington says the height is an important consideration because many elderly people have a low field of vision due to posture problems or being in a wheelchair.
“We would normally advise clients to mount the pictures as low on the wall as is physically possible. Sometimes it looks a little bit odd but it doesn’t look odd to the residents because for the first time they can actually see the work properly.”
Cost and cohesion
Like Ballard, Saddington agrees that any art program must match the overall vision and ethos of the organisation. A properly-curated collection of print material is tremendously helpful in showing people what the facility is about. “You can’t really show the level of service or other intangible things during one of those tours of the facility.” But if properly utilised, the art can symbolically show the level of care, Saddington says.
The two also agree that an art strategy doesn’t have to be expensive. Saddington says it depends on a client’s budget and the number of pieces they want, but print material is usually the cheaper option compared to original artwork.
Sourcing cheaper but appropriate material might take a bit more time and thought but there is always a way around it, says Ellie Roberts, who together with former minister for ageing Santo Santoro operates Aged Care Interiors, a Queensland-based company providing design consultation for interior environments in the seniors’ market.
Roberts suggests photography instead of original art work for smaller budgets but insists the art has to do more than fill a space. It needs to be part of a cohesive program, she says. “To get a really good cohesive interior it has to be collaborative and it has to be part of an overall scheme.”
Sourcing the curtains, furniture, flooring, and artwork from different suppliers because each is the cheapest in its field is likely to be “hit and miss,” she warns.
Roberts says she likes to look for something a little out of the box to promote interest and stimulation, but not so far out that it provokes controversy.
Good for business
Like other elements of a facility, artwork should be regularly reassessed. “When you do a refurbishment you could review the art,” she suggests.
With the sector becoming increasingly competitive, Roberts says expectations of improved interiors featuring artwork will only increase. Adding the review process to a refurbishment program can help address this and help with marketing. “Particularly in the public areas it will be a quick way of showing you have had a change,” she says.
Roberts is not alone in thinking an art strategy can help with marketing. Dr Ballard says that, in his time, visitors were struck by the art when they walked through the door and regularly commented on it. “It helps with marketing because people want the person they love the most to go somewhere that is warm, welcoming and comforting.”
The art also benefits the staff, Ballard says, by offering them a pleasant and stimulating environment. This is an important consideration which can assist one of the sector’s biggest challenges – attracting and retaining workers – Ballard says.
Aged care CEOs thinking about incorporating art into their facilities but facing unenthusiastic stakeholders should try the evidence angle first, but not give not up if that doesn’t work, advises Ballard.
“The aim is to promote a welcoming, people-friendly place and to humanise the institutional nature of residential facilities. For those not receptive to art as a means of engaging people, couch it simply as an aspect of interior design. It is decorative and contributes to marketing the facility. But for those of us committed to aged care, it is all about people.”
All art images supplied by Art Strategies Australia
This article first appeared in the November-December edition of Australian Ageing Agenda.