Ageing can be beautiful too

It’s Monday morning and Mary Monterio is having a ball of a time. While laying out flowers on cyanotype paper, the 78-year-old exclaims that the flowers appear to be saying hello to her. A stray flower escapes the arrangement and she chides that it’s getting “naughty”. She uses bold brushstrokes to coat the print with a special light-sensitive solution and gives a final flourish. 

While waiting for the pressed flowers to be exposed to the UV light, Mary breaks out spontaneously into dance, swaying to oldies music playing in the background. Her daughter-in-law Shirley and domestic helper Yanti watch on with amusement.

Gallery: Images of Aunty Mary’s artwork

Background: Opaque

Text: Later, she soaks the print in a basin of water and gives it a spin. “It’s swimming!” she exclaims. Slowly, the print turns an inky blue, and the ghostly shapes of delicate flowers start to form. 

Mary is learning how to do flower pressing and cyanotype printing with artist Samatha Tio at the Tiong Bahru branch of the Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA). Samantha addresses Mary fondly as Aunty Mary.

This latest collaboration with Mary builds on Samantha’s previous efforts of reminiscence therapy for the seniors at ADA, using old photographs.

Diagnosed with dementia in 2015, Mary was among this group of seniors who participated in programmes that will culminate to the Silver Arts festival 2021,an annual festival dedicated to celebrating seniors and creative ageing.

For this project, Samantha chose to do flower pressing and cyanotype printing, as she felt it was an age-appropriate activity and suitable for Mary.

Photo slider/ parallax: Images of the cyanotype process

Animated gif: Flowers that Aunty Mary picked 

As a start to the collaborative sessions for this project, the group first met for breakfast at the traditional Yijia Bakery House Cafe along Thomson, followed by flower shopping at the Far East Flora nurseries.

There, Mary enthused over seeing the rainbow coloured baby’s breath and pink flowers. “They are so beautiful, they make me feel like jumping up!” she said. 

In the subsequent sessions, Mary made several samples of flower pressing for her husband John and her grandchildren, in preparation for the final stage of cyanotype printing. Yanti and Shirley joined it as well, with Shirley joking that Mary has “more creative juices than all of them combined.”

Chatty and with a zest for life, Mary’s lively presence livens up every room that she is in. She loves to joke and make people laugh, often singing along to her favourite oldies to the likes of The Carpenters.

Along the way, she dispenses little gems of wisdom in the conversation, such as the philosophy behind why she has arranged the flowers a certain way or how singing liberates people and feeds their soul.

But there are signs that something is amiss. Because of her condition, Mary has trouble recognising familiar faces. At times, speech can get difficult for her and she gets plagued with self-doubt about her abilities. 

Photo: Archival images of ADA sessions, old photographs

To help keep her busy and active, Shirley accompanies her to ADA sessions where she takes part in art and craft, baking and cooking. She recalls how Mary, known affectionately to her grandchildren as “Nana”, used to whip up elaborate feasts of her famous devil’s curry and chicken pie during the Christmas festivities.

The family also engaged Yanti to keep a watchful eye on Mary and help her with daily activities like cooking, dressing and bathing. Yanti also accompanies Mary and John on regular outings to various malls and parks.

It’s this positive support and family environment that play a crucial role in seniors’ mental well-being, said Samantha, who has observed how the dynamics between the seniors and their caregivers differ from family to family.

The artist said she derives great meaning from working with seniors, as it has helped her consider what quality of life she would like for her own parents and for herself when she ages.

“Through these sessions, I learn to slow down… It makes me wonder, why are we hurrying all the time? What are we trying to arrive at?” she mused.

She noted that in Singapore, people tend to shun the idea of ageing and death.

There are instances where she has encountered how the old have been labeled or seen as “useless”, “unproductive” and “a burden”.

“That kind of negativity towards ageing, especially towards dementia, doesn’t provide a good environment for the elderly to thrive,” said Samantha.

Compared with her husband’s culture in Indonesia, she said, “Over there, they see an elderly person as somebody full of wisdom, experience and deeply connected with the spiritual. And that somebody old can be cute and full of humour as well…so I think that’s very beautiful.”

“In fact, the moment I realised that he was the person I wanted  to marry was when he said, “You’re going to be such a cute grandma and I want to hold your hand when you get old!” she said with a laugh.

For her, working with seniors with dementia brings about rich, multi-fold experiences.