By: Victoria Tay
How art can build bridges: a volunteer’s experience of Arts Day at Thye Hua Kwan Hospital
Published on 29 June 2018
As an introvert, I initially found the idea of interacting with much older strangers daunting, even though I live with my grandparents and am used to being with seniors.
I used to share a close bond with my grandmother, but since she was diagnosed with dementia, communicating has been a struggle. She no longer wants to do the things we used to enjoy together and often, I just end up watching a TV show with her. As a family, we have tried everything – senior community activities, yoga, puzzles – but each time, my once-bubbly Popo would exclaim that she isn’t a child and wants to go home.
So when the chance to join a volunteer arts experience at Thye Hua Kwan Hospital arose, I thought that it might be an enriching opportunity for me to learn a thing or two about how to communicate and, perhaps, create a new bond with my Popo.
Arriving at the centre
This is Xinyi, the Volunteer Manager of Thye Hua Kwan’s Hougang branch. As our day started, she gave us a thorough briefing of what to expect, and warned us that some of the seniors could be quite prickly. She gave us tips on how to handle them and reminded us that we should be helping them make the art pieces, and not doing it for them, unless they ask.
Xinyi then briefed us on the two activities available – colouring and iron-on beadwork. She explained that beadwork is the most popular activity, and she encouraged participants to be as creative as possible.
Before the fun and games could start, we had to bring everyone up to the arts area. So, with wheelchairs in tow, several other volunteers and I took the lift down to meet the people we were paired with. At this point, I was getting really nervous about how the day would pan out. What if my partner hated me? What if I couldn’t speak their language? Or what if I couldn’t even do the beadwork?
Once we were back at the arts area, my partner, Zaleha, was eager to start. Clearly, she had been looking forward to this activity, which is conducted by the hospital for a few hours a week. Zaleha has been in the hospital for more than a month now and was itching to get busy.
Zaleha picked the image of a bird, and after a few minutes of trying to copy the image, she looked at me expectantly.
I stared at the image for what seemed like a really long time, stumped for a solution. Thankfully, my partner understood my dilemma and laughed. “Never mind, lah,” she said. “It’s too hard!”
We settled for a different image and changed the pegboards we were working on.
As we got the hang of things, I soon found that we were able to make more than one piece of beadwork. I realised that the beadwork was also making us focus our minds while we were making art.
As we worked, Zaleha made me laugh with anecdotes about her husband and her grandchildren. I learnt that she always picks the image based on what she thinks her grandchildren will like and gives the artwork to them.
While inspecting the beads laid out in front of him, an elderly man sitting across her beckoned me over. He wanted me to help him find the colours he needed. Unfortunately, these were not available.
I gently told him that the hospital had run out of those colours, and suggested trying out a different colour scheme. He seemed happy with the new plan, and became even more determined to create the best artwork. In fact, there seemed to be an unspoken (but friendly) competition amongst the seniors. Often, they would even look over at their peers’ work!
Wrapping it up
All too soon, it was time to wrap the session up, and Zaleha said that it had again gone by too fast. She asked me if I would be coming back the next week, and it warmed my heart. I told her that I would try, and decided that I would definitely go back if I could clear my work schedule.
I guess I didn’t do too badly, after all.
Building bridges with art
Overall, even though the session lasted for only a few hours, I felt like it had been an intense experience. Even though there was a language barrier (a lot of the seniors spoke in dialect), we were so focused on making the art that it helped to bridge any gaps. Also, the beadwork activity was a great mental exercise – we had to calculate and plan for where and how we wanted to place the beads.
So, through teamwork and a lot of laughter, we got through the day. The activities made me start planning a day where my family can replicate the process at home with my grandma. By making it a family team activity, perhaps my grandma would not feel like we were “babying” her.
Through the volunteer process, I realised that even though we think that we are acting in the best interests of our elderly “wards”, we often overlook the fact that all they want is to spend time with us. And that, actually, isn’t so hard to give.