Certified Facilitator Spotlight: Ann Stromgren

As part of our “Certified Facilitator Spotlight” series, TimeSlips is excited to introduce and connect you to individuals doing work in the field of creative aging from many walks of life, different places around the globe and myriad vocations to highlight the breadth of work being done. This week, we are introducing you to Ann Stromgren! She is a weaver, singing sawyer, and fervent imperfectionist finishing a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in expressive arts therapy. Based in Manistique on the northern shore of Lake Michigan, she enjoys digging in the sand with her husband and one-year-old daughter.

TimeSlips: You recently completed an internship this Spring in which you used TimeSlips. Tell us about that.

Ann: I’m studying Expressive Arts Therapy in a distance program through Lesley University, which requires two year-long field training placements. I live in a remote area in upper peninsula Michigan, where it’s hard to find mental health internship sites, let alone any program that uses the arts. I was fortunate enough to find a small facility, Woodland Assisted Living, in my town of Manistique that allowed me to come in twice a week and create an internship experience for myself. They trusted me with a lot of freedom to experiment, but it was difficult to invent out of thin air creative experiences that resonated with the residents. During this time, I was reading anything I could find about creative work with elders, and I stumbled upon Anne Basting’s book, “Creative Care.” It was an amazing experience to read about someone who shares my values about both aging and creativity succeeding at doing the kinds of things I dream of doing, but things people kept telling me were impossible. When I read that I could become trained in TimeSlips, I knew that was just what I needed to provide structure and support for my internship. I’m glad I was able to experiment with offering a lot of different creative experiences, but TimeSlips storytelling sessions were the one thing that was always a hit with the residents. My goal is always to prove people wrong when they think they’re not creative, and TimeSlips helped me do that.

TimeSlips: What is the first thing that comes to mind to you when someone says an individual with Dementia isn’t “with it”?

Ann: First I would ask, what is “it” and why would I want it? As someone studying a person-centered and strengths-based form of counseling, it’s never my job to create hierarchies of realities or to see people in terms of their deficits. My job is always to enter into someone’s reality, find out what thriving looks like for them, and support them in working toward that. As an expressive arts therapist in training, my comfort with exploring imaginal realms makes it easy for me to engage with folks who experience reality differently than I do. There are so many ways to experience life. For me, the opportunity to join other people in their experiences of being human makes my own life richer, and that connection and expansion of my own perspective is so much more valuable than “being with it.”

TimeSlips: What can Nurse’s aides and Patient Care Technicians bring to creative aging?

Ann: The aides and staff at Woodland are amazing. Many have close personal relationships with the residents, and they know just the right way to joke with each resident to raise their mood. They are also great at lifting up the residents’ strengths, and they loved to tell me about any artistic talent or interest a resident had (even though the resident nearly always denied it!). I think one of the most important things assisted living staff can do is to be relentless about highlighting elders’ strengths, because they always have many, but we’re working against the weight of a culture so pervasively ageist that it’s hard to even see just how ageist it is. And we all need to practice recognizing creativity as a universal strength, because this is countercultural, too.

TimeSlips: How did the staff and families respond to your creative engagement work and how does that shape what you are doing now?

Ann: It was hard for staff and volunteers to understand, especially when I was working with visual art, that I wasn’t interested in a specific product or result, and that my vision of “success” had nothing to do with people engaging in what I was offering in a specific way. I was inviting people to experience something, and hoping that I might be able to surprise them and maybe even spark delight. I was hoping we could get somewhere new together. I usually met family members in the context of one-on-one work with residents, so they could tell I was committed to co-creating an experience that would be relevant for their loved one. Often that just meant listening to the resident’s life stories and responding in a way that was informed by my lenses of expressive arts therapy and TimeSlips. At the beginning of my internship, I felt a lot of pressure to prove that I was doing something art-related, but what I discovered about my field is that it’s all about imagination and connection, regardless of what specific activities or mediums you’re using. Language is an expressive medium, too! The TimeSlips concept of Beautiful Questions has become a big part of how I see expressive arts work. Beautiful Questions are a very simple way to accomplish the expressive arts therapy goals of “decentering” the problem and activating people’s innate creative resources in a way that is approachable even for the most adamantly “uncreative” person.

TimeSlips: What is one thing people don’t know about you? 

Ann: Some people know that I once hitchhiked to Poland. What they don’t know is where I started from.

TimeSlips: Chocolate or Peanut Butter? 

Ann: Chocolate, but only if it is dark.

TimeSlips: If you could travel anywhere, where would you go and who would you take with you?

Ann: I’ve always wanted to go to India. My next great travel dream is to attend a three-week Hindi language program in Jaipur. I would love to bring my husband and daughter!