Making Sense of Circles

Introducing the Labyrinth in Long Term Care

A natural partnership has been formed between a multifaith chaplain and an artist, both working at the Perley Rideau Veteran’s Health Centre in Ottawa. It took the skills of both of us to give birth to something new, yet very old. We modeled our labyrinth on the classical seven circuit form of the labyrinth and adapted it for our population of frail elderly residents. I designed a five circuit labyrinth using a specialty floor marking tape that could stand up to the ride-on floor washing machines in use in the health care centre. The usual pattern of lines defining the walls of the labyrinth were reversed so that participants would now simply follow the line of tape. The spacing between the paths was wide enough for two wheelchairs to pass. A semicircular area at the beginning of the labyrinth welcomed and provided a focus while the enlarged centre accommodated 4 or 5 people or wheelchairs.

After being heckled by the maintenance workers, and receiving blank stairs from other staff, we did wonder if introducing the labyrinth in LTC was a viable idea. We had 7 weeks to find out. After two years of planning and pitching the idea we finally got down to work and figured out how to lay an accessible tape labyrinth.

As one ages and the physical body fails, spirituality is an area that can grow when nurtured. My background as a visual artist and horticultural therapist working in long term care has given me an opportunity to experience and study the deep connection we have to plants and the natural world. With that awareness it was a small step to recognize the benefits of the labyrinth to ones wellbeing and spiritual connection to self and others. The labyrinth is often encountered in garden settings so the connection was already there.

Together Sherry and I created a 7 week program that focused on learning how to walk or wheel the labyrinth and then looked at self reflection and self discovery through joy, grief, pilgrimage and celebration. After introducing the idea to residents we had a group of 13 who agreed to participate. The first morning 7 residents showed up, all of whom needed reminders and some required assistance to get to the centrally located hall. It is not easy in LTC to get commitment and follow through from residents for a wide variety of reasons. Many felt conflicted as the Labyrinth Program was held at the same time as the exercise program. The second week went better with a discernable difference in the level of confidence the participants felt in maneuvering in the space. Questions arose and we did our best to explain and reassure. We did discover that it is not possible to move through our labyrinth with a scooter as the wheel base is much too long.

To accommodate those for whom language and words do not come easily we offered participants a simple drawing activity as a way of processing their experience. The drawings then became a starting point for the discussion that followed the walk. We found that the drawings helped to trigger memory and even those who had difficulty holding a pencil or pastel were regularly making drawings. The experience of walking or wheeling is an integrated mind/body practice and often will result in images that can lead to personal discovery or revelation. Having the opportunity to make a simple sketch or drawing is a way of catching insights and impressions in a way that can be shared with others. Journaling is usually recommended following a labyrinth walk but many of our residents no longer have the ability to write. The group of residents we worked with were not in the habit of drawing and we were struck by how willing and easily they approach the activity of drawing. I joked with the participants, saying that if I held a drawing class they would not come, and if they did they wouldn’t know what to draw. Funny thing, no one seemed at a loss for what to draw after walking the labyrinth.

We hosted two open walks for staff and very few people came. We invited the staff and residents from the Dementia Care units and they came and brought several residents. We had a beautiful peaceful and quietly dignified time together. The value of these encounters is very difficult to determine but it sure felt good. I was stunned to see a couple of the ambulatory residents with Dementia complete drawings following the circular pattern. We call this form of processing Arts Based Evidence.

At the conclusion of the 7 week program we mounted all of the 70 or so drawings in a main hallway. Everyone was surprised to see both the variety and common themes in the drawings. What they prove is hard to say but they do make a statement and make visible the private and ethereal moments spent in motion walking or wheeling the labyrinth.

We learned quite a bit while presenting this program and while our little labyrinth is simple it can illicit moments of insight and a sense of inner peace just like the full sized Chartres Labyrinth. The opportunity to create and host beautiful and quiet peace-filled moments in the mist of a bustling health care centre was a rare privilege. We look forward to building on this fledgling experience. Our next focus will be to develop a program to support staff working in LTC, dealing with issues of stress and cumulative loss.

Perley Rideau Hybrid LabyirnthArts Based Response to walking the Labyrinth


2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Circles

  1. Hello Barbara,

    Your labyrinth project at the Perley sounds wonderful. Is it still there or was it only go for the seven weeks? I am thinking about ways of enriching the environment in psychiatric residential settings. There is usually so little space. People tend to sit together and smoke or stay in their room and sleep. Or if they have a bit of money, they can go to the store
    Being a horticultural therapist sounds really fun. I am a nurse with gardening aspirations. I imagine getting grants and shovels and earth and digging up lawns and planting seeds and growing things. But even if people were interested in working on some kind of garden, even if the garden grew and was beautiful, what happens in the winter? There would have to be something else. Ultimately everyone has to decide for themselves what they might want to do besides smoking all day. It would be good to have a few more ideas, though. Walking in circles is a great idea if you can find the space.

    1. The Labyrinth at the Perley lasted for 7 months and we have just replaced it and changed the pattern. We now have a monthly labyrinth walk for the residents in the evening. It is quieter in the evening, less traffic in the halls and it has been a wonderful time to be with the residents.

      You may want to consider using a canvas labyrinth but you will know if that will work for your population. Can the tables be moved in your dinning area?

      Horticultural Therapy is a life affirming, fun and enriching activity for many populations. We run a year round program using art activities related to gardening and natural imagery to round out the year. We do a considerable amount of indoor gardening, propagating tropical plants that are easy to grow. Check out CHTA and AHTA the Canadian and American Horticultural Therapy Association for information and program ideas.

      Thanks for your inquiry and best of luck with your projects.

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