Spanish-speaking seniors connect online through art

·3 min read
Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama learned about mandalas in her art therapy class at Algonquin College. She says colouring the intricate designs requires attention and focus, which also relieves anxiety. (Submitted by Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama - image credit)
Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama learned about mandalas in her art therapy class at Algonquin College. She says colouring the intricate designs requires attention and focus, which also relieves anxiety. (Submitted by Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama - image credit)

When the pandemic hit, Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama went from being one of the busiest 70-year-olds in Ottawa to losing the majority of her daily activities.

That included the art therapy classes she'd been taking, her volunteer work with other seniors and her regular physical activities like swimming.

"With the pandemic, I lost everything," the former public servant said. "The advice for me was to stay home, and it was very, very tough."

After the second meeting, I realized all the seniors wanted to do was talk. - Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama

That isolation led to anxiety and took a toll on her mental health, Cruz-Valderrama said. But it also made her realize there must be other Spanish-speaking seniors in the same situation.

"I just started to think, if this is happening to me ... I could not imagine those individuals, those seniors that have language barriers in my community."

Last spring, Cruz-Valderrama launched New Beginnings, an organization that helps Spanish-speaking seniors in Ottawa who don't have access to technology cope with isolation through art therapy.

Before the pandemic, Cruz-Valderrama, a retired public servant, kept busy volunteering, swimming, knitting and studying art therapy at Algonquin College. 
Before the pandemic, Cruz-Valderrama, a retired public servant, kept busy volunteering, swimming, knitting and studying art therapy at Algonquin College. (Submitted by Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama )

Art as therapy

"I remember one of my classes at Algonquin College, someone was talking about mandalas," she said, referring to the intricate geometric designs that arose centuries ago as an art form among Buddhists in India.

With funding from the Social Planning Council of Ottawa, Cruz-Valderrama bought mandala colouring books and supplies for the more than one dozen Spanish-speaking group members, who started colouring together by phone during weekly conference calls.

According to Cruz-Valderrama, colouring the designs requires attention and focus, and that can help relieve anxiety.

Last fall, through an initiative called the Honeycomb Project, Cruz-Valderrama was able to provide the group with tablets so the seniors could continue their sessions via Zoom.
Last fall, through an initiative called the Honeycomb Project, Cruz-Valderrama was able to provide the group with tablets so the seniors could continue their sessions via Zoom.(CBC)

"It's something new for me," said Jesus Puertas, 82.

Originally from Spain, Puertas joined the group early on and is now on his third colouring book.

"I like painting in general, but this is different. You concentrate on the designs and the colours," Puertas said, adding that he sometimes spends up to two hours a day colouring mandalas.

"I'm very happy. It's a good experience."

Mandalas are intricate geometric designs that arose centuries ago as an art form among Buddhists in India.
Mandalas are intricate geometric designs that arose centuries ago as an art form among Buddhists in India.(CBC)

From phone calls to Zoom

Over a year since the sessions began, Cruz-Valderrama said it's become much more than a colouring group.

"After the second meeting, I realized all the seniors wanted to do was talk," she said.

On Wednesdays, they now take turns sharing stories from their cultures. On Fridays, they read Spanish-language poetry, which Cruz-Valderrama dubs Poetry of the Americas. Throughout the year they've listened to concerts and participated in workshops in everything from yoga to mental health — and until recently, they did it all over the phone.

Jesus Puertas, 82, says he's been spending up to two hours a day colouring mandalas since joining the group.
Jesus Puertas, 82, says he's been spending up to two hours a day colouring mandalas since joining the group. (CBC)

Last fall, Cruz-Valderrama decided to take it to the next level and secured funding for tablets for the seniors.

Now, they share their designs with each other over Zoom, and Cruz-Valderrama has even added another art form to the mix.

"I got into embroidery," she said.

Cruz-Valderrama says she's now set her sights on a new medium: embroidery.
Cruz-Valderrama says she's now set her sights on a new medium: embroidery.(Submitted by Ana Maria Cruz-Valderrama)