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Hello! My name is Alice Lam and I am a Board Member of the Creative Aging Calgary Society.

For the past three years I have been volunteering as a companion for a group of non-English speaking Seniors in Chinatown. They are an energetic group in their 80s and 90s, living independently in subsidized housing. The first year I volunteered with them I often asked if they would like to do an artistic activity but the response I got was always “I don’t know how” or “I wouldn’t be good at it.” I realized that posing the question would never result in a “yes” and that I had to figure out a plan.

With many older adults, the situation is the similar, especially if they are immigrants. Due to war and poor economic circumstances, their exposure to art classes or other creative activities was limited due to having to work at a young age. Many of the Chinese seniors I volunteer with often lament on how art is for people of better economic circumstance and is not something they saw as a skill they could acquire – especially this late in life. I knew I had to change their perspective!

The seniors didn’t want to paint because they were worried they were not artistic enough, or lacked talent and did not want to be embarrassed. I figured this would be a good opportunity to find a project that didn’t require a high skill set but would still show them how soothing and fun a creative activity could be.

I got some funding from the Calgary Foundation for art supplies, and received in-kind contribution from local Artist and ACAD Professor Mark Vazquez-Mackay to plan the mural. We had stations set up at Carter Place, the subsidized senior housing complex, the Cultural Centre, partnered with the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizen Association, and Clover Living  in order to gain access to another group of seniors who could participate. Since many of the seniors we know could not easily leave their home, we devised a method in which each senior could paint individual square tiles, and we would piece it together to form a larger piece of artwork.We took a piece of 6×4 plywood and cut it into tiles that were about 5 inches in height. We then pieced the tiles back together and sketched the mural that we wanted and wrote in the colours for each shape. We would bring the individual tiles to the senior residences for them to paint. It took a bit more planning on our end but the results were amazing.

Some of the seniors were a bit startled when they came to the common room that day to find paint and blank tiles in front of their seats. But with a little coaching, they started painting tile slowly but surely. After about 15 minutes most of them got the hang of the activity and ended up painting all the tiles we had allotted for them that day. Some of the quotes we received were “I like how relaxing painting is. It is good exercise for the mind”, “This is good use of my wrists to combat arthritis”, and best of all “This isn’t that hard! What are we doing next?”. Some of the painters did not follow the colour coding exactly but this only resulted in an even more interesting piece of artwork.

Through this simple activity of painting tiles with colours the seniors were able to engage in a creative activity, and they were able to also share stories from their childhood.

The Mural was completed in three sessions. Once the tiles were all dry, Mark and I pieced them back together and voila! a mural appeared. It was featured in the Herald, Metro News, and was on display at the Chinese Cultural Centre from January to April.

Since this Mural, we have asked artists to come teach simple painting lessons, we have done wrapping paper design, and also a DIY Seniors Flower Market. They love artistic activities and their family members often comment on the artwork displayed in their homes. I am very proud of the seniors and their passion for creativity now!

Tiles Cut and sketching the mural image and colour coding: 

Seniors from Carter Place, Clover Living, and the Calgary Chinese Elderly Citizen Association:

Completed tiles: 

Putting the pieces back together: 

The Final Product! Trimming the Edges: 

The mural on display at the Chinese Cultural Centre: 

If you are interested in launching a creative program at your facility here is a quick tip sheet: (Click to enlarge and print) 

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