Today's Story - from Newsday

Helen Lenetsky's weathered hands guided her paintbrush, leaving behind gentle, intertwining strokes of purple, pink and green. Her eyes glanced around the room taking inspiration - if only subconsciously - from her surroundings in her retirement home.

Having painted for less than a year, Lenetsky's artistic goals are not fame or acclaim. In fact, she often paints with nothing particular in mind and no immediate thoughts about her work's meaning.

But none of that has stopped Lenetsky, 88, from being noticed.

One of her works, "Fall Reflections," was on display in the U.S. Senate in an exhibit held by the American Art Therapy Association. The show, which ended June 19, showcased 105 works by elderly citizens from around the country.

Lenetsky, a resident of the Bristal Assisted Living Community in North Woodmere, has been attending group art therapy sessions for months. Her piece was one of eight in her class to be displayed in the Senate. Trudy Alpern, Sylvia Berman, Ceil Chason, Bea Garver, Doris Hiller (two works) and Claire Korin also had paintings displayed in the show.

Two paintings chosen

Lenetsky's work, however, was one of two paintings plucked from the exhibit - and the only one from Long Island - to become part of the permanent collection of the Administration on Aging, a division of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.

"I was very, very surprised," she said of the honor. "Very thrilled. The artwork just came to me naturally."

The "natural" manner of creation that Lenetsky employed is precisely the point of art therapy - to draw from the subconscious - said Arlene Esgar, an American Art Therapy Association board-certified art therapist working at Bristal. Esgar's class attempts to create a window into the subconscious of her students by analyzing the symbols in their art. Over time, Esgar said, she is able to examine emotional issues by interpreting a person's artwork.

"I can see aspects of their personalities; if they're depressed, if they're happy. I can see changes in their everyday lives by what they are making."

Lenetsky is no exception.

A twice-widowed native Manhattanite who lived in Boca Raton, Fla., for many years, Lenetsky recently came to Bristal to be closer to her family, said her daughter Sandy Kaye, of East Rockaway.

"Fall Reflections," which depicts a row of autumnal trees reflected onto a pool of water, is an expression of the increased self-confidence, self- examination and optimism Lenetsky has acquired since being at Bristal, Esgar said. A quote of Lenetsky's that accompanied her piece at the exhibit read, "In the fall of my years I am getting better and better."

While art therapy has been used with people of all ages, it has proven particularly effective in alleviating many conditions that can affect the elderly, such as Alzheimer's disease, dementia and disorientation, as well as helping to preserve and improve general cognition, Esgar said.

In many cases, it is the physical act of painting that leads to medical improvement. "Sometimes seniors are having difficulty with fine motor skills, and using certain art materials may help with that," said Beth Gonzalez-Dolginko, also a board-certified art therapist and psychoanalyst in Huntington Hospital's Acute Psychiatric Unit. "It helps not only to increase coordination but to help them feel a sense of confidence and mastery over things they are losing capacity with."

Gonzalez-Dolginko said she has seen significant results while working with post-stroke patients who were able to communicate through their artwork after they had lost the ability to speak coherently.

Despite success stories such as these, art therapy remains largely under-recognized, members of the association said.

"It's definitely a new-ish field," said Megan Robb, curator of the therapy association show, and the group's liaison for its Governmental Affairs Committee. "We definitely are growing and raising awareness. Hopefully, every year people will learn more and more about it."

Meanwhile, Lenetsky and her friends at Bristal continue to pour their hearts onto blank canvases every week. For Lenetsky, the value of art therapy is real. She said, "I feel like I'm accomplishing something."

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