Try to not judge what you’re doing and focus more on the process of creating in that circle. Art for self care and self-expression is not about the end result. It’s about the feelings that come up during the process of connecting with art supplies to create.
The global health and wellness market is worth more than 1.5 trillion dollars. So many people are looking to improve their physical, mental, and emotional wellness. At the same time, so many people are needed to help provide these services. What does it take to create a highly successful career in the health and wellness industry?
In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Health and Wellness Industry” we are talking to health and wellness professionals who can share insights and stories from their experiences.
In this particular interview, we had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Erica Curcio.
Erica Curcio, is a speaker, art therapist, self care workshop facilitator and dementia advocate living in Boston, Massachusetts. She is the Founder of Art Therapists at Home, a therapy practice that brings art therapy to people living with dementia at their homes in the Boston area. She believes all who are living with dementia still have capabilities and strengths waiting for us to unearth and engage.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up on Long Island, about 50 minutes outside of New York City, in Massapequa. I’m a middle child, sandwiched between two brothers. I was an active kid, always involved in sports, ballet and dedicated to my flute. I look back now and can’t believe how busy I was. I always had something to do every day of the week.
Art wasn’t on my radar until I was introduced to painting one summer at the age of 15. After that summer I decided to focus my attention on creating art. I spent two additional summers dabbling in oil paints and one more in a drawing program at a local university for high school students. Those summers showed me two things- 1. That I was good at something and 2. That I could speak more easily through my art than with words. Creating art opened a new mode of communication for me and if I were to look back at my life to say where my journey to being an art therapist started, I’d say it was right here.
I was unconsciously using art to help communicate my struggles. It was helping me cope with life. As an Art Therapist now, I would have loved to process my first painting with my younger self. The prompt was to paint an animal that represents you. I decided on a Zebra, which has many symbolic meanings, but the part that I would have wanted to process with my younger self is the arrangement. I painted myself on the Zebra with the stripes enveloping both the Zebra and me. We are running against a painting full of horses going the opposite direction. And if I could ask my younger self anything, I’d want to know, where are that young girl and the Zebra going?
Was there a particular person or event that inspired you to live a wellness-focused lifestyle? Can you tell us about your main motivation to go all in?
This is a really difficult question to answer. I think it’s a culmination of points in my life where it became very apparent that my emotional wellness needed to be a priority. We all live on spectrums of wellness and sometimes we lean towards one side more than the other. I personally seek that middle ground of balance, which I consider wholeness. So whether that’s creating art, going for a run, or playing in my garden. It’s a combination of things that make me feel good. When I’m feeling down, I remember that goodness to inspire me to get back to it.
Most people with a wellbeing centered lifestyle have a “go-to” activity, exercise, beverage, or food that is part of their routine. What is yours and can you tell us how it helps you?
Every morning I try to create art with the intention of starting my day off on the right foot. At the beginning of every month I purchase a 30 page watercolor book and draw 30 circles, one on each page. Every morning thereafter I enter one of those circles with my art supplies. This ritual centers and grounds me. I firmly believe that I can take on more challenges when I start the day with artmaking.
To live a wellness-focused life is one thing, but how did it become your career? How did it all start?
A book! Believe it or not, a self-help book called out to me in a bookstore at a difficult time in my life. One of the pages in the book asked, “what makes you happy?’’ My answer was, “helping people and creating art”. At that time, I had no idea what art therapy was, but I was on a path to finding my way there.
When I entered graduate school, I thought I was going to work with children doing what I called “cake therapy”. In my eyes, cake therapy would involve using cake decorating like a sculpting technique to process trauma and build resiliency. That idea never worked out because after spending a year with seniors in an assisted living, I found that I wanted to work with seniors living with memory loss.
From the moment I walked into my first internship at an assisted living, something changed inside of me. I felt a level of comfort creating art with people living with dementia. I was increasingly fascinated by their stories, openness to create and the power of one person’s human connection over another.
Ten years later, I am still fascinated, inspired and motivated by the connections my clients make to artmaking. For some of them, every session might be like the first time we are meeting. For others, the minute they see my face they know it’s their turn to create. I am honored to work with people living with dementia. They’ve taught me and continue to teach me about life, the power of love and everything in between.
Can you share a story about the biggest challenges you faced when you were first starting? How did you resolve that? What are the main lessons or takeaways from that story?
The biggest challenge in my career has been proving myself as a geriatric therapist for people living with dementia to their caregivers and care managers. When I think about someone seeking therapy, there’s often a desire for that person to learn coping skills that will assist them in getting past a certain situation in their life.
My dilemma has been, what happens when your client is unable to learn those coping skills? What happens when they can’t speak to the value of their time in therapy? What would be the purpose of therapy for them? How can you prove what you’re doing is effective? These were questions that would often swirl into my mind when I wondered how I could sell a business around therapy for people living with dementia? How do I show their caregiver or care manager the value in my work?
I have not completely figured this challenge out. There are times I feel a lot of pressure to satisfy someone other than the person living with dementia. In those moments, I constantly remind myself that I’m there for the person living with dementia. I’m there to spark joy, relieve pain and add moments of curiosity to their week. I am there because I know that art can reconnect someone living with dementia to a part of themselves they might not have thought was still there.
Before I start working with a new client I write myself a letter from the future. I speak to myself as if I’ve already met with the person and how successful our experience together was. This letter helps to remind me of the skills and expertise I have. It’s a good reminder that what I’m doing with this person is going to create positive moments that might linger beyond our time together. I keep the letter in my car and re-read it right before I go into a new client’s home. It helps me focus my attention on who I’m there to serve and that they’re going to be the only person in the room that matters for the next hour.
Can you share with us how the work you are doing is helping to make a bigger impact in the world? Can you share a story that illustrates that?
People living with dementia still have strengths and capabilities. I share these anecdotes by speaking to professionals and care partners at conferences. Recently, I spoke to the Massachusetts New Hampshire chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association. My theme was how art can help people living with dementia and also professionals. In this presentation I taught the simple act of creating in a circle and since then, dozens of participants have created their own and shared them with me on social media. This simple strategy can be a way to connect with people living with dementia and also ourselves as care partners. Every time I receive a share on social media of a circle, I know my message is growing louder and someone else is feeling the great benefits of creating art.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I started in the virtual space (Instagram) by giving tips and strategies for using art with people living with dementia because during COVID I couldn’t see my clients in person. As I looked around, I noticed something really important was missing. Care Partners (the people caring for and with the person living with dementia) were overwhelmed. They didn’t have the energy or time to do projects with their loved ones because they were trying to just get through the day. This observation has most recently left me to drastically shift my focus to teaching about how dementia Care Partners can take care of themselves through art.
This led me to recently start a monthly self care art night for Care Partners and I am also in the middle of creating an online course called Art for the Carer: how to use art for self care. It is filled with self care strategies that are completely art-based. It’s for the Care Partners or anyone else caring for someone and they’ve lost themselves along the way. It is a great introduction to art supplies and artmaking.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Curiosity: Throughout my life, there were points where I was told, I asked too many questions. Which led me to think as a child this was a negative quality to have, but I just couldn’t stop myself. There’s always been this desire inside of me to know and understand the whole picture of a person or situation. I believe and live with the motto, the more I learn, the more I understand.
Passion: I feel so deeply about helping people living with dementia communicate through art that I think about my clients more than I should. The idea of finding the right art supply to match and meet a person where they are excites me. To see a person who has had difficulty connecting with the world around them come alive when using art feeds that passion.
Dedication: There comes a point with most clients where the art won’t work the way it used to. Or the person becomes disinterested in something that used to give them calming support or pleasure. At that point, I’m dedicated to finding what will work. There will be changes for that person, but the commitment to see them connect with something keeps me motivated to figure it out.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. Wellness is an incredibly broad topic. How would you define the term “Wellness”? Can you explain what you mean?
Coming from a mental health perspective, I go right to emotional wellness. It’s about finding the balance between our emotions. As humans, we need to experience every emotion and be accepting of that. It’s okay to cry. Actually, it’s great because it means you’re releasing an emotion. It’s when that sadness overtakes and stops you from experiencing life that crying becomes a problem. We can’t be one emotion 100% of the time. Finding that middle ground and skills to keep us there is where we feel emotionally well. Life can be really stressful and if you feel you need support, seek the help of a local therapist.
As an expert, this might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Can you please share a few reasons with our readers about why focusing on our wellness should be a priority in our lives?
When you’re well on the inside, your outside will reflect that same feeling. Every. Single. Time.
When we feel great, others also pick up on that. They want to be around us because that feeling is radiating. Think of a person in your life you look up to and question why it is you look up to them. What are they doing in their life that makes them inspirational to you? By feeling good and living a well life, you too can be inspirational for those around you. It’s almost like a pay-it-forward campaign!
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an increasingly growing understanding of the necessity for companies to be mindful of the wellness of their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, can you share steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental and physical wellness?
Our employees will do the best job when they feel their best. Something I am seeing more is corporations contracting with mental health professionals to provide self care trainings. This might seem like a small thing, but it’s impact is great. When I facilitate art-based self care workshops with corporate clients, the feedback from participants is a request for more and gratitude to have the space to take the time during their workday for themselves. Covid has been stressful on all of us, we all need and deserve these mental health breaks.
It’s also important for corporations to set work hours and not cross over them. Encouraging employees to delay sending emails to ensure they will be received during actual work hours sets and keeps those boundaries for everyone.
I also really appreciate when organizations offer Employee Assistance Programs that give their employees access to mental health services at no cost. I think companies could do a better job at explaining they have these services. I know a lot of companies that have these and their employees don’t utilize them. Check with your organization and see if you have the benefits and then ask your employer to make it more well known to others. We have to advocate for ourselves and others around us, now more than ever. You never know what the person next you is struggling with.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Career In The Health and Wellness Industry”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
1. Passion — You need passion for the people you serve. An interest, love and all-consuming devotion to what you’re doing and who you’re serving is going to take you a long way. I love working with people living with dementia. Witnessing and participating in their creative process has helped me see clients in a fresh light that sometimes exposes the person they used to be to their families. Seeing those moments drives me to keep going and to aspire for all my clients to have those creative connections. There always should be room for someone living with dementia to be a part of our lives and not on the sidelines.
2. Purpose — Your mission and everyday life should be driven by your purpose. You have to want to make an impact on someone else’s life. When I first start working with a client living with dementia there is a three-to-four-week trial period. We are both getting to know each other, and my client is dabbling in different artforms until we see the one that works best for them. When that moment happens, a room of possibilities opens that we both feel. I believe this opportunity is available to all people living with dementia and I am driven by a purpose to help them find it.
3. Entrepreneurial Outlook — You need to have 100% stake in what you’re doing. A real desire to see a project through, keep going and working with it until it’s perfect. You also need to be able to anticipate and be flexible for what’s just around the corner. There’s always something new coming up next and figuring how you fit in that mix. Having that entrepreneurial outlook is going to help you bend when you need to.
4. Desire to make positive changes in the world and an ability to wait for what that is. As a child I always knew I was going to make a difference in the world, but I wasn’t sure how. I knew I had something special to give, but again I didn’t know what. And then I met my first person living with dementia and it all clicked. I know what it looks like to see someone living with dementia who was previously unengaged, come alive through the act of creating art. Or for someone who has trouble making decisions confidently choose what colors they want and how to use them. If I hadn’t waited for this moment to arise, I would have missed it.
5. Restorative time for self care. The phrase self care has come into popularity in recent years and I’m glad it has. Imagine if you could take a moment for yourself when nothing else matters, except you! If it feels difficult for you to set aside time for yourself, try to make it small chunks, like five to ten minutes. Even better, schedule it in your calendar.
Here’s an art idea! Set aside five to ten minutes at the beginning of your day. Take a piece of thick paper and draw a circle in the middle of it. At the top write the prompt, Today I will feel. Without thinking about it, take any art supplies you have on hand, (pens and pencils work too) and fill your circle. Try to not judge what you’re doing and focus more on the process of creating in that circle. Art for self care and self-expression is not about the end result. It’s about the feelings that come up during the process of connecting with art supplies to create.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would promote the most wellness to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to start an art movement that involves advocacy and education about people living with dementia and their Care Partners. If you’re reading this article and someone you love is living with dementia, it would be great if you could take a picture of you and your Loved One creating art with the hashtag #artfordementia
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Since I’ve been in the field of dementia, I’ve always looked up to Teepa Snow, the founder of a training organization called Positive Approach to Care. Teepa is inspirational in the way she speaks about connecting with people living with dementia and making them feel part of their care. I’m inspired to create something just as impactful as my journey through my career in dementia care.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I show up every day on Instagram as @thetravelingarttherapist. If you live in the Boston area and are interested in art therapy for your loved one living with dementia or your family, you can find more information about my therapy practice, Art Therapists at Home here: www.arttherapistsathome.com
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!