By Marcia Z. Siegal
Nancy Collier remembers vividly the call she received a year ago. The caller’s elderly husband had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side and unable to speak. “He sits around all day watching TV and follows me around when I clean,” the woman said, adding that the stress of the situation was becoming unbearable.
But all that has changed over the past year. Collier's patient, once a master carpenter, now produces drawings and paintings notable for their precise attention to detail as well as their beauty. “We started simply at first,” Collier recalls of his early sessions with her. “He wanted to draw. In the beginning, I had him copy images laid upside down upon the table — a technique frequently used with brain-damaged patients to stimulate the brain’s more creative right hemisphere to take over."
Over time, he’s become much more confident, independent and calm, she says. His wife has set up a studio for him in the dining room, and his neurologist can’t get over how much he is improving.
This late-blooming artist is one of thousands of people Collier and her colleagues at New Outlook Therapy have helped over the years — in hospitals and rehabilitation centers, classrooms and in their homes.
A former art and music teacher, Collier first fully realized the healing power of the arts when her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer 26 years ago. “The doctor said she would live at most two weeks, and there was nothing to do but put her in a nursing home,” Collier recalls.
Instead she brought her mother home to live with her family. “I knew she always wanted to play the drums, so one night, when a colleague’s son’s band was having a reunion, I invited my mother to come along. She joined in playing the full drum set as if she had played for years,” Collier says. “She stayed past midnight, then was up bright and early the next day.” Her mother continued to pursue arts activities and lived for 13 months instead of the two weeks predicted. “It taught me that the arts have healing powers,” Collier says.
That experience inspired her to leave teaching and found the program. The name was inspired by a patient’s wife, who said the therapy gave her husband a “new outlook” on life. Described on its website as “providing a quality of life, restoring hope, humor, healing and an enthusiastic 'New Outlook,'” the program currently serves clients in Bucks, Lehigh, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties. In addition to Collier, there are six volunteer teachers and “we are always looking for more,” she says.
Their logo is a butterfly, and the symbol is apt. “Many of the people we see are in a cocoon, a chrysalis of fear, pain and despair,“ she explains. “They think there is nothing they can do. We help them to spread their wings and be free.”
The program has helped patients with conditions ranging from Alzheimer’s Disease and stroke to Down’s Syndrome, cancer, multiple sclerosis and more. Therapy is matched to the needs, abilities and interests of each patient or group and can comprise visual arts; music; creative writing; telling jokes and humorous stories; or such multi-sensory activities as simultaneous singing and painting; writing and illustrating a children’s book; or setting an original poem to music.
Success stories include a mother with terminal brain cancer who created a scrapbook of paintings and poems for her young daughter; a patient with Lou Gehrig’s Disease who learned to paint by holding a paintbrush in his mouth; and a older, isolated woman suffering from depression who created a cookbook of her special recipes and then became involved in planning weekly family dinners.
One of her most memorable clients was a 92-year-old woman, whose daughter had described her as “always complaining about life and all the things she could not do,” Collier says, “but once she learned to paint, she took off like anything.” While formerly dreading her weekly calls to her mom, the woman’s daughter now happily calls her twice a week. “Instead of telling me what she’s not doing,” the daughter says, “ she tells me all about her latest masterpiece.”
Photo: Nancy Collier, founder of New Outlook Therapy