Art therapy helps Evelyn’s House patients and families express difficult emotions
BJC HealthCare

Art therapy helps Evelyn’s House patients and families express difficult emotions

Envisioned as an environment where both adult and pediatric hospice patients could come for symptom management, respite care and end-of-life care, Evelyn’s House was designed, built and staffed to make patients, and their families, feel supported and at home during this most difficult time.

The Evelyn’s House team focuses on all aspects of patients’ and families’ care, including their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Team members often help patients and families express difficult emotions through art or music therapy, two of the expressive therapies offered at Evelyn’s House.

“Exploring art when losing a loved one allows people to cope with the unthinkable,” says Evelyn’s House art therapist and bereavement specialist Jennifer Dykeman, MA, ATR, LCP. “Expressing yourself with art can produce a powerful release of emotions that can be healing to the mind, body and spirit.”

Art therapy is offered to Evelyn’s House patients and their families, along with bereavement support after the loss of a loved one. “Common goals of expressive therapy include relaxation and stress relief, a sense of control and purpose, providing insight on emotions, and encouraging communication between loved ones,” Dykeman says.

“You don’t need any skills to express what you’re feeling with art. Patients and families cope with the complex emotions associated with grief in different ways. Whether at the bedside working with a patient or helping families create a legacy project, the work can be as simple as kneading and modeling clay together or making a memory box or as elaborate as creating a family canvas,” Dykeman says.

Evidence-based studies have shown that the use of art materials in a variety of settings can ease depression, calm anxiety and stimulate the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain. A 2017 study by Drexel University showed that creating art can trigger the reward center of the brain, which can, in turn, reduce stress. The study also found that skill level or experience in art didn’t have any bearing on the benefits.

“People of all ages come into the art studio and create beautiful works of art that are unique and special to them,” Dykeman says. “I’ve witnessed people who arrive upset, tearful and struggling with both physical and emotional pain. They begin to shift and change as they start to create. I see them relax and they are then able to process all they’re experiencing.

“I may help them get started on ideas, or they may already know what they want to create, but we work together,” Dykeman adds. “We’ve had so many beautiful, creative, meaningful art pieces crafted with love and care here at Evelyn’s House. It’s an honor to see the transformations and to help nurture and support grieving families.”

In addition to the daily open art studio with patients and families, Evelyn’s House also offers a bi-monthly grief support group on the first and third Thursday of every month in the Meditation Room and a young adult art therapy group called the “Many Colors of Grief” on the second Thursday of every month in the art studio for young adults who have lost a parent.

Rock Garden dedicated to patients

When Evelyn’s House opened in June 2017, each employee was given a rock and asked to think about their intention for Evelyn’s House and what they would bring to the house.

The employees used words and images on their rock that would form the base, or foundation, for all of the other stones that are made for Evelyn’s House families each week, as well as the stones family members make for their loved ones. A prayer was said over all of the team’s rocks and they were placed in the Meditation Garden at Evelyn’s House.

Each week, staff members get together and, as a group, come up with words, images or thoughts about each patient who passed away the week prior and those are drawn or written on each rock. A short ceremony takes place in which the music therapist sings a song, the chaplain says a prayer and together the staff say the patient’s name and dedicate that rock to the garden.

Staff members have dedicated a rock to each patient who has died since the house opened.

Hearts full of thoughts and wishes

At the Evelyn’s House reception desk, a golden tree sits where everyone who enters can see the paper hearts hanging from the branches. Visitors, staff and guests are encouraged to write a note on a paper heart for staff or a wish for a loved one or a wish for the house, whatever’s in their heart or mind.

Once the tree is full of hearts, Evelyn’s House volunteers Kim Gregory, Sandra Ray and Victoria O’Leary hang the hearts on the tree that was painted on the wall of the art therapy room by talented BJC Hospice volunteer Kirsten Perschbacher.

“Kirsten beautifully drew the tree, painted it and helped me tremendously to bring it to life in the art room,” says Dykeman. “I appreciate all of the volunteers at Evelyn’s House — they are such a joy.”

Evelyn’s House is always in need of donations, including art supplies and rocks for the Meditation Garden. 

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