Drawing seniors out of their shell with art

Every week, a group of seniors paint and practise K-pop dance moves at the Toa Payoh Care Corner Senior Activity Centre.
Madam Chaw (left) said she has become more cheerful and patient after taking up painting and dancing as part of the Fine Arts Programme at the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Toa Payoh. Mr Lim Suey Teng (centre), 67, practises his dance moves w
Madam Chaw (left) said she has become more cheerful and patient after taking up painting and dancing as part of the Fine Arts Programme at the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Toa Payoh. ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG
Madam Chaw (left) said she has become more cheerful and patient after taking up painting and dancing as part of the Fine Arts Programme at the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre in Toa Payoh. Mr Lim Suey Teng (centre), 67, practises his dance moves w
Mr Lim Suey Teng (centre), 67, practises his dance moves with Madam Yong Xing Rong (left), 82, and Madam Lee Lay Kwan, 72, for an upcoming performance.ST PHOTOS: MARK CHEONG

In fast-paced Singapore, there are those in need - and those who take up the cudgels on their behalf. This is the fourth in a series on noteworthy causes that The Straits Times will be spotlighting.

It is 1.30pm and a few seniors are seated on bright yellow chairs, quietly waiting at the Care Corner Senior Activity Centre (SAC) at Block 170 in Toa Payoh.

Staff members set out plates and cups on newspaper-lined tables. These are not for lunch, but for the free weekly art classes for elderly residents in the area. Bottles of acrylic paint and brushes are also set out.

As the class gets going, some paint on a fresh sheet of paper, while others continue working on an unfinished artwork. A teacher goes around to offer advice.

This painting class on a weekday last month was part of the centre's Fine Arts Programme, which began with colouring activities in 2012 and later, photography and painting lessons. More than 20 elderly residents have attended the painting and photography classes.

Some have even had their photos and artwork shown at an exhibition in October 2015 at Clarke Quay Central by voluntary welfare groups Care Corner and Habitat for Humanity Singapore.

Ms Phebe See, 54, the unit lead of the centre, said she set high standards when she started the programme, but the elderly participants have surpassed her expectations. "Some even go out on their own or organise outings to take photos," she said.

MORE THAN JUST LESSONS

Previously, I didn't dare to wear bright colours or short sleeves because of a problem with my arms - they are not the same size. Now I don't care what other people say. As long as I'm comfortable and I like it, it is okay.

MADAM CHAW AH MOOI, who feels that attending the classes has given her added confidence.

The seniors learnt photography from Mr Yong Teck Meng, national director of Habitat for Humanity Singapore, who had volunteered to teach them in 2014 after seeing their artwork. He conducted classes on basic photography and later roped in a professional photographer to help.

The exposure to various art forms, including dance and music, has transformed the lives of some seniors. Retired cleaner Chaw Ah Mooi, 70, who is single, said she has become more cheerful and patient after taking up painting and dancing at the centre.

When the centre first conducted a trial for the programme, she would often give up on her art projects before they were completed.

She said of the painting she is currently working on: "I've worked on this for four sessions and it's not done yet."

Ms See said things changed for Madam Chaw when she completed a collage of two bears in 2012.

"She proved to herself that she could do it and I use this to remind her that she can," said Ms See, who later framed up the art piece. "The collage is so detailed that even I, as her teacher, could not do it, I don't have the patience."

Madam Chaw also changed the way she dressed as she gained more confidence. She said: "Previously, I didn't dare to wear bright colours or short sleeves because of a problem with my arms - they are not the same size. Now I don't care what other people say. As long as I'm comfortable and I like it, it is okay."

She added: "I'm very lucky because I never thought that someone like me, who can't read, could have such achievements."

While Ms See's training is in graphic design, she said she is able to connect with the seniors through their art. "When I see that they are using only dark colours, I ask them why they are unhappy and they are surprised that I can tell," she said.

Seniors from the SAC at Block 149 in Toa Payoh have also started learning painting as Care Corner Seniors Services (CCSS) seeks to expand the programme.

Besides raising funds from the sale of the artworks, CCSS has also produced a coffee table book of work by the seniors. All proceeds go to the Senior Enabling Fund to support the programme.

Ms See hopes to hold another exhibition featuring works by seniors from other SACs in Toa Payoh. She said: "Those who used to profess that they were very unhappy really lit up during the exhibition in 2015. I cried when I saw that."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 09, 2017, with the headline 'Drawing seniors out of their shell with art'. Print Edition | Subscribe