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The Remarkable Artists of Zambarano

Paint and Canvas - How Residents Express Their Thoughts at Zambarano Hospital

by Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.

Zambarano Hospital in Burrillville, Rhode Island

"Gustav Klimt, the Austrian symbolist painter once stated, 'Whoever wants to know something about me, they should look attentively at my pictures and there seek to recognize what I am and what I want,'" said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "This quote stands out to me every time I walk into Zambarano Hospital but with one huge difference, the art that adorns the hallway there was not done by a professional artist, but by residents who, for the most part, can only use this medium to relay who they are and what they want. As the old idiom goes, a picture can speak a thousand words, but the artworks at Zambarano speaks a lifetime of words."

"...a picture can speak a thousand words, but the artwork at Zambarano speaks a lifetime of words." ---Attorney RJ Connelly III

What Attorney Connelly is referring to is the artwork that hangs upon the walls of Zambarano Hospital, a facility that sits on the banks of Wallum Lake in Burrillville, Rhode Island that provides long-term acute and post-acute hospital level of care to patients with complex medical and psychiatric needs. It is a hospital that has a long and storied history.

Zambarano resident artwork

In 1902, tuberculosis (TB) was raging in this country and Rhode Island joined the Sanatorium movement, purchasing 250 acres of land and quickly constructing the building. By November 1905, the first patients were admitted. Soon thereafter, word spread about the sanatorium built in the "woods of northern Rhode Island" where patients with TB could go and pass in peace.


Through the years, the hospital has reinvented itself numerous times and most recently was infamously plagued with accusations of mismanagement and financial improprieties, nearly facing closure. But one thing that has never wavered is the compassionate staff who provide care and motivation for the residents, some of whom are confined there for life. And because of the long-term nature of the residents' stays and the medical issues they present with, staff are totally committed to their successful outcomes, as defined by each resident's circumstances, and one of these ways is through artistic statements.

Zambarano resident artwork

"One of the major things we focus on with our residents is creative expression, guiding them in ways that enhance their understanding of themselves and what they bring to others," a staff person said. "We also use art as a way to achieve social connections, helping them to realize that they do belong and have as much of a voice in this world as everyone else. Although they may need to be heard in a much more unique way, rest assured that anyone who sees what they create will never forget them."


Art Therapy for Neurological Conditions

Using art therapy for patients and residents of long-term care facilities is nothing new but using it for brain-injured individuals or those with neurological disorders is. There has been an enormous body of recent work that shows it to be extremely beneficial and so much so that it is now considered to be a best practice for those presenting with these issues.

Zambarano resident artwork

Those with progressive diseases like Multiple Sclerosis (MS) or Parkinson's Disease (PD) have conditions that are constantly changing their physical capabilities. Although there exist medications that can assist with physical symptom reduction, what is available to help the emotional state of mind of these individuals as life for them changes rapidly?


Unfortunately, some of the medications used to treat physical symptoms can cause depression, anxiety, and even hallucinations, resulting in the prescribing of antipsychotics. It's a merry-go-round of pharmaceutical interventions that they may never get off, so using art therapy to address some of the emotional symptoms is a unique and holistic way to treat them with little or no side effects.

Zambarano resident artwork

Research has also shown that those who do not respond well to other types of treatment seem much more receptive to art therapy because it is viewed as non-threatening compared to other task-oriented types of rehabilitative disciplines. There also appears to be a carry-over effect in some cases as those who enjoyed the art therapy component of rehab tended to remain calmer and more focused when returning to more conventional therapies.


"Art therapy has been shown to help those individuals who did not initially tolerate physical or speech therapy very well," said a staff member at Zambarano. "Through the use of drawing and painting, they were much more engaged and focused for longer periods of time and their gains appeared to be much more significant."


Art therapies have also been shown to assist with:

  • Creating a stable and positive sense of self-worth in residents.

  • Help regulate thoughts and behaviors.

  • Improve communication and social interactions.

  • Help with problem-solving skills.

  • Develop emotional resilience.

  • Decrease pain sensitivity thereby reducing medication reliance.

Types of Activities

The positive thing about art therapy is that it can be tailored to any treatment plan and the resident's ability. "It has proven to be especially useful when issues like limited language capacity are present or the person struggles when trying to express themself," said the staff person. "Art therapy improves the person's ability to be heard, allows them to express internal conflicts, and can relieve suppressed emotions."

Zambarano resident artwork

Art therapists use a variety of activities for residents which includes:

  • Drawing and coloring.

  • Painting with oils or watercolors.

  • Sewing or knitting.

  • Creating collages from news clippings or magazines.

  • Creating murals.

  • Making a heart box where residents can place notes about thoughts, feelings, or stressors to relieve stress.

  • Designing postcards or holiday cards.

  • Making puppets.

Although these activities may seem "somewhat basic" to the layman, they are extremely powerful when working with residents in facilities like Zambarano Hospital. A story published in a New York newspaper about this type of therapy told of a young man in treatment who started drawing and one of the first words he spoke to staff when describing his feelings was, "I'm drawing back my brains". For this young man, this therapy allowed for the retrieval of his cognitive abilities and ultimately his identity.


Others are Affected

Zambarano resident artwork

"Through the years, I have been the legal guardian for many residents at Zambarano and something I learned that is very important -- loved ones can be just as affected by the situation as the resident," stated Attorney Connelly. "The stories from family members and other loved ones have an impact on me to such a point that I find myself reliving their pain and fears on my drive back to the office. I think about the time they have spent traveling, the months spent in hospitals and rehabs, and the sometimes seemingly impossible navigation of the health care and legal systems for their suddenly disabled family member. And then I imagine how hopeful they must feel when they see pictures painted or drawn by their loved one, a potholder that was knitted, or a collage put together in art therapy. This is the gift that the staff at Zambarano helps to deliver to family members and to the residents, telling them that they do matter in this world and that someone is listening. It is truly a humbling experience."

"...the artwork that our residents produce goes far beyond what many of us expect and provides a unique insight into their own perceptions of the world and those around them." ---Zambarano staff

"Each resident here at Zambarano who is doing art therapy is working toward a personal goal of becoming reinvolved with the world and expressing who they are on their own terms," said the staff person. "Honestly, the artwork that our residents produce goes far beyond what many of us expect and provides a unique insight into their own perceptions of the world and those around them. Their accomplishments in art therapy leads to a sense of self-reliance that helps them build upon their current social skills and improve their self-confidence."


"When someone tells me that miracles are impossible, all they need to do is spend a few minutes with the staff and residents of Zambarano Hospital," said Attorney Connelly. "Believe me, it is a life-changing experience, to say the least."




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