It’s senior year and the final semester for UWM student artist Erin Whitney. But, instead of living an apartment near campus with her friends celebrating her last year, she’s devoted it to living in Chai Point Senior Living in Milwaukee, where she teaches art to senior residents.
Whitney is part of the Student Artist in Residence program, a program created through UWM Professor Anne Basting. Whitney is among five artists who teach art in different senior living centers as well as schools and churches.
In exchange for an art studio, supplies and workshops, Whitney moved into a roomy apartment in Chai Point at the start of fall semester. Chai Point employees were very enthusiastic about the program and found an empty office just outside the front desk for Erin to set up her studio in. The studio is open every Tuesday and Thursday for residents who want to practice their art skills.
“I have a couple regulars that come in and they’re so skilled,” says Whitney. “The consistent presence creates richer relationships.”
A big point of the program is to help bridge the age gap by using art as a way for everyone to try something new. Bastings came up with the idea of using art as therapy in senior living homes after receiving enthusiastic responses from Alzheimer’s and dementia residents by using art as a way to interact. This idea is now used in multiple programs that Bastings created to involve UWM art students.
The inter-generational living has turned into so much more naturally to Whitney, especially her close relationships with the senior residents. It’s been the most valued part of the experience thus far.
“It’s hard going through this program and not have these relationships with these wonderful people or not to have this really great banter every morning,” says Whitney. These relationships aren’t just developed through her studio time, but through meals at the dinning halls, throughout the building and within other events going on at Chai Point.
One of Whitney’s closest relationships wasn’t actually developed through her art events, but through daily interactions. Enid is a resident at Chai Point and she helped Whitney put together her sweater swap event. Enid doesn’t pay attention to the age gap or program when thinking about their friendship.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea that the college is doing this,” says Enid Powell . “But I don’t think of her in terms of a college student, she is who she is.”
Whitney often brings Enid to UWM events with her and they enjoy getting coffee together.
The relationships she made a Chai Point has been her favorite part of the program, “It’s one of the richest parts of living in the place you’re working,” she says.
She has a special bond with her neighbors. They enjoy surprising Whitney with notes, gifts, and treats. The neighbor across from Whitney gave her Challah bread to try for the first time and another neighbor knitted her some decorative items. Others have given her art pieces they’ve created to make her feel more at home.
Whitney puts together workshops once a month, that’s dedicated to a certain theme or they’re based on what’s happening at the moment. At one workshop they used tree branches as paint brushes. She also put together a sweater swap with another resident. Around thirty people showed up including Whitney’s coworkers and friends where they exchanges sweaters and created art patches for an added fun art craft.
“It was really good to have this community that I get to live with as well as my community at school come together.”says Whitney.
Whitney believes that art is an extension and growth that can be built upon. Her hope is to develop a sense of creativity and playfulness. Something that’s very important to have in places with senior adults.
Whitney has been hearing more enthusiasm from the residents as they continue to create art. Instead of the reaction of ‘why’ when they do something unique and different, she’s starting to hear the response of ‘why not’.
“That’s the ultimate response you want by creating art,” added Whitney.
Whitney feels so strongly about the benefits of this program that she hopes this opportunity will start opening up to other majors that could benefit from this experience as well.