February 23, 2016 Features

Most graduate students attending health professional schools don’t get enough time to sleep, let alone make art.

That is, unless they’re lucky enough to get into a program called PALETTE, which is run in partnership with the VCU School of Allied Health Professions’ Department of Gerontology and always has a waiting list.

PALETTE, which is open to graduate students, pairs would-be health professionals with active senior volunteers and uses art to break down practitioners’ stereotypes about older adults. The program’s name is an acronym for “Promoting Art for Life Enrichment Through Transgenerational Engagement.”

PALETTE is led by gerontology specialist Sadie Rubin and is co-taught by two VCU professors—Tracey Gendron in the Department of Gerontology and Emily Peron in the School of Pharmacy. Instead of meeting for class at VCU’s Medical Campus, students spend much of their time at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond.

“There’s significant research to support the fact that attitudes towards older adults in healthcare settings are fairly negative and contribute to negative health outcomes,” says Rubin. “Through PALETTE, health professional students build meaningful intergenerational relationships that help to improve their attitudes toward older adults and aging.”

Each PALETTE student is paired with an older adult for the entirety of the program. Rubin and her colleagues are purposefully vague on who qualifies as an “older adult”—participants have ranged in age from 62 to 92. Most are referred through PALETTE’s partners, the Weinstein Jewish Community Center and Senior Connections, but Rubin says that the only qualification is that participants must consider themselves to be active older adults.

At the beginning of the program, students get a crash course in gerontology, which helps them better understand issues of aging and the discrimination older adults face. Then everyone in the program—15 students and 15 older adults—meets at the Visual Arts Center for five Sundays to take art classes together in one of four tracks: clay, fiber, printmaking or painting and drawing.

There are both short- and long-term benefits to this approach. Research shows that older adults who participate in art programs enjoy better health outcomes, and an art class provides the perfect foundation for participants to build a natural relationship.

“It’s so rare for health professional students to engage with active older adults. We’re showing them positive examples of aging, not so they’ll walk away thinking how awesome aging is, but so they can at least move away from some of the negative stereotypes about aging and bring their aging attitudes closer to ‘neutral’,” says Rubin.

On Monday, February 29 PALETTE will open the exhibition, “Art Beyond the Ages,” in the Visual Arts Center’s Dominion Room. The opening reception runs from 5 to 7 p.m. and gives the community a chance to view the work produced by program participants.

PALETTE is funded by grants from the Geriatric Training and Education Initiative, administered by the Virginia Center on Aging.