Many of artist Jordyn Brennan's drawings feature closeups of hands — hands resting on a chair arm, opening an envelope, praying, gripping the bars of a walker — their etched skin and prominent bones offering evidence of a long life.

Some of the works indicate the presence of an additional person, another set of hands gently applying nail polish or picking up dishes after a meal. In one, a baby grips an aging index finger.

Brennan's drawings are meticulously detailed glimpses of giving and receiving late-in-life care. Some focus on other fragments of the experience — feet, faces, even compositions that contain no people but suggest a caregiving chore: a neatly made bed, a shower with a towel hung over the rod.

The drawings form "A State of Being," the thesis Brennan submitted to earn a master of fine arts degree from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design last spring.

Brennan's work honors the routine human interactions of a caregiving relationship, seemingly mundane and often overlooked.

"I explore what it is to care for someone — not just all the tasks but being there for them emotionally," she said. In pen, pencil and charcoal powder, she draws "the simple yet tender moments of our caregiving, whether it's painting somebody's nails or just being present with someone."

At 24, Brennan knows those moments firsthand. She grew up in Hortonville, Wis., appreciating the value of helping others. As long as she can remember, her mother has provided care for a family friend named Bob, who is now in his 90s. Brennan has often helped out, including in the summer of 2020, when her mother had to undergo surgery. Without a caregiver, Bob would have had to move into a nursing home. Brennan stepped up.

She took Bob to doctor appointments, cooked for him, helped get his mail — simple tasks that many take for granted but that could keep Bob in his own home, safe and healthy and, most impressively, happy.

"It was eye-opening to see how important it is that people have autonomy over their lives," she said. "Being able to choose what you're having for dinner, being able to get your own mail with a little assistance, being able to bathe and eat at the times you would like."

More recently, she volunteered at Martin Luther Campus, a senior living facility providing assisted-living and long-term care, where she would sit with residents and talk about their lives.

"Compassionate caregiving involves creating a meaningful relationship by seeing each person as a multifaceted individual with hopes, dreams, aspirations, knowledge, life experience and capabilities," Brennan wrote in a thesis essay accompanying her artworks.

Pieces from Brennan's thesis collection are on display in the Edina corporate offices of Ebenezer, which operates Martin Luther Campus.

At Martin Luther, the staff was excited about Brennan's interest in spending time with residents and the "empathetic, caring spirit" she brought to the interactions, said Kate Blessing, director of community relations.

"Jordyn has this ability to just sort of hold space with someone," Blessing said. "She can just be with someone and talk with them and listen."

Somewhere along the way, Brennan realized that caregiving moments were "some of the most important and memorable times" in her life and that she wanted to capture them in her art.

Increased demand for caregivers

Over a lifetime, many of us will serve as caregivers to children, older relatives, ailing friends. And many of us eventually will need caregivers ourselves.

Requiring help with everyday activities is not an inevitable consequence of aging, but aging increases the likelihood that declining physical or cognitive health will affect someone's ability to function independently.

After age 75, according to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 20% of people need help with the "instrumental activities of daily living," including transportation to doctors' appointments and other events, managing finances, meal preparation, housecleaning and managing medications.

Over 10% of people in that age group need help with more basic activities, such as walking, feeding, dressing, personal hygiene and using the toilet.

The needs increase with age. More than half of people between 85 and 89 receive a caregiver's help, according to a report by the National Academies of Medicine, and after age 90 only a quarter of people can get by without some assistance from others.

As the U.S. population ages, more people will need that help. By 2030, more than one in five Americans will be 65 or older, with the greatest growth among the "oldest old."

Meanwhile, the pool of potential family caregivers is shrinking, with families having fewer children, children more likely to live far from their parents and women — who, traditionally and now, form the majority of caregivers — more likely to work.

Experts have warned for years of this increasingly critical caregiver shortage. But little action has been taken to prepare for the demographic shift, the report said.

"As a society, we have always depended on family caregivers to provide the lion's share of long-term services and supports for our elders," the report said. "Yet the need to recognize and support caregivers is among the most significant overlooked challenges facing the aging U.S. population, their families, and society."

A topic people fear

On the surface, Brennan's presentation of the caregiving relationship is celebratory. But that's an oversimplified interpretation, given that her drawings focus on a part of life that most people in our culture would rather not think about — until they have to.

"We've done such a good job of shutting out these narratives from our common discussion," said Lauren Callis, a Minneapolis therapist and Brennan's artistic mentor. "Jordyn's work has a really light touch of disarming around a topic that holds a lot of fear for folks."

Art often shows images of sickness and dying in "grotesque, jarring images making the viewer want to cling onto their health and youth at all cost," Brennan wrote in the thesis essay.

There's a lack of positive imagery, she wrote, "making it hard to imagine that caring or being cared for is a normal part of life."

So rather than address the emotional, physical and financial stress that can accompany caregiving, Brennan wanted to talk about caregiving as a "positive, beautiful experience," a relationship with mutual benefits.

"It's really a part of life, and I feel like the earlier we can talk about it — the good the bad and all that's in between — the better we can set ourselves up to live those final years," she said.