When the Healthy Aging team from Jewish Family Service of Metrowest, first arrived with Malka Young, Director of Community Impacts to implement preventative health programs for the residents at Hastings House, an affordable housing option for Metrowest community members age 60 or older located in Framingham, it was not a happy place. Residents mostly kept to themselves, there were no regular activities, and an attitude of indifference permeated the building.
If there was one thing that further exemplified this lack of warmth, it was the sterile white walls. It was the walls and what they represented that depressed the JFS team most. They stretched from common space to common space—devoid of any character, nothing that indicated lived-in space– things you may recall seeing on the wall in your grandparent’s house for instance, such as your grandmother’s love declared in needlepoint, or the piece of stained glass your grandfather made as a hobby.
Long ago Hastings House was a school. In fact some of the residents attended elementary school there. It has since been converted and divided up into 72 one-bedroom units with lots of communal space. The apartments are strung along long corridors. Stairs and stairways—made cavernous to hold many students traversing to and from class, are now taken up by wide metal walkers. Bare, white walls are for airports, not for homes, and certainly not for places like Hastings House with its big, great spaces and many inhabitants.
The team had two issues before them: The slightly weightier issue of how to get the residents to care about their community, to want to interact with each other and to motivate them to be more active and healthier. The second issue was a decorative issue, but no less important.
It is a common saying that “we are what we eat.” Is it possible to have a similar relationship to the place we sleep? Is this the reason hotels hang landscapes above the bed? Could this be a contributing factor to the loneliness and isolation of a prisoner? In order to care about themselves, the residents of Hastings House needed to care about their surroundings.
Buying art would have been an easy solution, but it would have only solved the second issue and the cost to cover so much wall space would have quickly reached an exorbitant amount. The residents might create the art, but so few were natural artists with the drive and desire to take on the challenge.
What looks like art but isn’t art? What’s inexpensive and commonly found? It was a riddle of sorts, the answer to which JFS knew would equal a better quality of life for residents. The answer came by way of Alice, a resident at Hastings House.
Alice loved puzzles. Working on puzzles was her favorite hobby—picking them out, fitting the pieces together, as if she was uncovering a secret message, and the satisfaction she got when she finished it—as though everything wrong could be set right again. Puzzles, it turned out, were the answer to the team’s dilemma. Sealed with a special binding epoxy upon completion, the puzzles were the perfect solution to an empty wall. And it wasn’t just the building that benefited from all the puzzle production, once residents got wind that puzzles were being hung like works of art, involvement in puzzle production sky-rocketed. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to have a hand in the art creation. Residents began to request special works for the hallway outside their doors, a sunflower next to unit 12, a NASA themed puzzle to be placed by #32.
An open space once devoid of any kind of social gathering became the puzzle area. Folding tables were erected to hold puzzles in various stages of completion, and a few bookcases filled only with puzzles (initially purchased with a grant money and continuing with puzzles provided by the residents themselves and their families) dominated the space.
Now, this is an area the residents go to socialize—fitting the pieces of their day together with one another while joining the intricately cut cardboard that will soon become another one of their Da Vincis or Picassos.
Today it is easy to see the appreciation the residents have for Hastings House, and for JFS. Puzzles appear in every hall, some grouped by theme and others by date of completion. No longer are the walls cold and sad. And the residents, they too have a different affect. When JFS staff comes to discuss Healthy Aging with them, they address a crowded room.
Through the puzzles the residents found pride– in their home, their hobby, their lives, and community. The puzzles were an affirmation that getting old does not mean giving up—it’s just a new adventure, a fresh white wall to decorate.