Bringing Art to Life: Growing Empathy Through Art Therapy, Life Story and Relationships
Daniel Potts1, Neelum Aggarwal2, Rebecca Allen3, Keisha Carden3, Angel Duncan1
1Cognitive Dynamics Foundation, 2Rush Alzheimer's Disease Center, 3Psychology, University of Alabama

Bringing Art to Life (BATL) is a service-learning program for pre-health care students and persons living with dementia (PWD) in which intergenerational relationships are fostered through art therapy and narrative. The program’s impact on student empathy and stigma related to aging was assessed.

Empathy is a fundamental element of high-quality health care. Research has demonstrated that empathy declines during pre-health education. As there is currently no standard for empathy training, appeals have been made for the development of evidence-based empathy-enhancing paradigms.
242 students in introductory psychology, 100 in psychology of aging, and 24 in BATL, mean age of 19.36 (SD = 1.44), participated. Students completed electronic surveys measuring empathy, mindfulness, and attitudes toward older adults generally, PWD, and interest in service. Students also kept journals documenting their experiences. In a sequential mixed methods design, a qualitative phase II follow-up explanations model was employed to interpret quantitative results. Student journals were collected, a coding system was developed, and coders utilized an iterative hermeneutic process to enhance interrater reliability.

Within-subjects analyses of covariance revealed increases in empathy and improved attitudes toward older adults and PWD. BATL students showed greater increases in empathy, Wilks’ lambda = .856, F(2, 345) = 29.058, p = .000 (M = 47.52, SD = .75), and improved attitudes towards PWD, Wilks’ lambda = 0.952, F(2,355) = 8.98, p < .0001 (M = 14.25, SD = .36) relative to students in a psychology of aging course. Moreover, attitudes towards community service were improved, Wilks’ lambda = .502, F(2, 356) = 176.436, p = .000 (M = 27.71, SD = .41) relative to students in psychology of aging.

BATL, a program utilizing art therapy, narrative and intergenerational relationships, grows empathy and lessens the stigma of aging in pre-health care students. Arts-based programs should be further studied in healthcare education.