Works and Days

Recreational Therapy at the Livermore Veteran’s Association, Reed Winter Externship Program, Maggie Maclean

As a part of the Reed Winter Externship Program, Maggie Maclean, class of 2016, worked at a veteran’s hospital, assisting patients through recreational and art therapy

As I prepared for my internship at a teaching hospital in Livermore, California, I realized that there was one very important detail that Reed had not prepared me for: business casual attire. I managed to dig out of my closet one pair of pants without ripped knees and a pair of boots without paint splattered on them. I arrived at the Veterans Association’s Community Living Center hoping to blend in as a med student, not an art major.

Although I have taken a few psychology classes at Reed, I never imagined myself in the scientific world of clinical medicine. I was worried about how I would fare in a hospital setting. Taking the elevator between floors of residents’ rooms I felt like an extra in a doctor show minus the white coat. But throughout my externship I saw how far interpersonal skills, patience, and an open mind could take me.

My first day I met up with Dr. Geoffery Lane, a geriatric
psychologist, who I would be shadowing for the week. He gave me a tour of the hospital and introduced me to the staff and residents. I was immediately struck by how much it felt like an assisted living facility where my grandparents had lived, not like a hospital. Most patients stay for months or years, so everything has a more relaxed feel. The main event of the day was attending patient Care Planning meetings. These meetings reminded me of a Reed style conference class. Patients and their families met with the doctors, nursing staff, dietician, recreational therapist, psychologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and even the Chaplain to discuss the patient’s progress and needs. It felt so strange to me to be on the doctors’ side - I identified most with the families and patients, but I saw how the doctors had to balance the patents’ medical needs with the emotions and reality of real life.
My second day, I participated in a fascinating form of therapy involving a robotic plushy seal named Paro. Paro was designed in Japan as an alternative to animal therapy. His tail, flippers, head, and eyelids move, and he has these huge eyes with long eyelashes. A recording of a baby seal pup provides Paro’s voice, and he responds positively to attention, cuddling, and human voices. The residents took turns petting and talking to Paro; because most patients have dementia, they think the toy is real. After the session I talked to Dr. Lane and two doctoral students about the ethics of allowing or even encouraging patients to think Paro is real. I was skeptical, but animal therapy is really positive for older patients, and live animals can pose health and safety risks. Paro fosters community among the residents, gives them something to care for, and they genuinely enjoy playing and talking to him, which is definitely what matters most.

My favorite part of the week was leading a painting workshop for the residents. Originally I was just going to sit in on the class, but their regular teacher was sick so I teamed up with one of the recreational therapists to lead the class. This gave me a chance to connect with some of the residents and hear their stories. I finally felt like I was in my element - I showed them how to mix colors and create different textures, but I also saw that it really didn’t matter what we were painting. The beauty of the exercise was that it gave us something to do as a group, a point of connection, an opportunity for conversation and a challenge we could succeed at together.

After just a few days with Dr. Lane at the VA, I was able to see myself working with patients in a hospital setting. Sitting around the table in Care Planning meetings, seeing therapists advocating for patients, connect with the residents on a personal level, and seeing how important classes like painting, crafts, and yoga can be for patients’ well being inspired me to further pursue psychology and especially art therapy. With or without paint splattered on my boots, I have hope that I will find a career where my artistic training will be an important asset.


Tags: reed winter externship , psychology, veterans, clinical, mental health, therapy, art, winter externship program