Virtual art therapy, events helping those with Alzheimer's during pandemic

Nov 17, 2020

For those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, having access to social activities is crucial. COVID-19 has presented a few challenges for the WNY Alzheimer’s Association, but it hasn’t stopped them from finding socially safe ways to gather an at risk population on a weekly basis. This includes art related Zoom activities with local partners like the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

After learning about the Tree of Life pattern, group participant Bob Wiltshire drew this picture
Credit Bob Wiltshire / WNY Alzheimer's Association

Twice a month, since this past April, a group with the Western New York Alzheimer’s Association meets for art therapy.

“So we're going to experience a little bit of a virtual tour of the Martin house,” said Karen Duval, the Albright-Knox’s Access & Community Programs Coordinator.

Duval helped guide the event last week, along with other contributors, which started with history and pictures of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House.

“I hope everybody got a chance to get their art materials. It's in this little kind of white bag,” Duval told the group.

Art supplies were mailed ahead of the time for a creative session where the group will draw their own art inspired by the famous “Tree of Life” window.

One of Duval’s colleagues, Taylor, led the history portion of the session.

“These are kind of the most famous patterns that we have at the Martin House,” Taylor said. “And in fact, it's one of the most famous patterns that Frank Lloyd Wright ever designed. And it's called the Tree of Life pattern. And he did not call these windows, he actually called them light screens.”

During a non-COVID year, an event like this could be in person. Tour goers could see how the windows create an entire wall. How the windows integrate with the architecture and its geometric approach to capturing nature. Taylor explained this in detail to the group.

“Even in the wintertime when you're kind of looking through these windows outside to see the trees that don't have any leaves on it and the snow covered ground, you're still greeted with a kind of green window that showcases a tree that is blooming anytime of the year,” Taylor said. “So one of the things that he did, which we talked about was that these muted windows are an example of pulling something from nature.”

The Albright-Knox’s partnership with the Western New York Alzheimer’s Association has been running since 2018. Duval explains how it ran before COVID.

“This has been going as a free kind of monthly program that is based in the museum, so groups come to the Albright Knox museum and I give a tour of the galleries and the artworks,” said Duval. “And we have these really kind of lovely moments where we just kind of make time and have kind of group discussion to interpret kind of our own different works of art.”

Duval said they had to pivot once COVID hit, considering the majority of the group would be considered at risk to the virus.

“We kind of started just to kind of work and we set up these kind of Zoom sessions. And what we found was that people just kind of needed an opportunity to connect maybe a little bit more regularly than once a month,” Duval said.

The connection is apparent. During the session, once they got to draw their own designs, the camaraderie displayed was front and center.

“Wow, everybody's really does look so different. That is so cool,” said Taylor and Duval.

“That’s beautiful,” a few responded with a couple of participants before hearing, “You talking about me or the picture?” joked Don Brzezicki.

The group on Zoom working on their drawings inspired by the famous “Tree of Life” window.
Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO

Those with Alzheimer’s or dementia are at a higher risk of isolation and depression if they don’t have support. Throw a pandemic in to that and you have a huge concern for the more than 5 million Americans age 65 and older who live with it. So for amateur artists like Dave Gonlag, to have a group like this means a lot.

“I'm the fifth generation that's added,” Gonlag said.

“Oh wow,” other group members reacted.

“As a kid,” Gonlag explained, “I grew up with Alzheimer's and we were caregivers for my aunt until she passed and then a year before she passed, I was diagnosed. The one thing with my aunt that I noticed was she really perked up when she went into the home and had all the social interaction.”

Gonlag added art related activities stand out.

“I know every time we get into music, I can remember lyrics from songs 40 years ago. But I can't tell you what I have for breakfast,” Gonlag said to laughs. “Same thing with painting, art, and all that kind of thing.”

“I can relate to that,” laughed Brzezicki.

Some of the group have never actually met in person. The group sees each other throughout the month at virtual BINGO, virtual lunch gatherings, virtual fitness, virtual music therapy-- virtual options have become a great resource for those like Bob and Sandra Wiltshire.

“We live down in Eden,” Sandra said. “So if we had the drive up to Sheridan Drive for every one of these it would be a real drag, so I hate that it's online. But on the other hand, I like that it’s online.”

Beyond the art, it’s clear friendships have formed. The social connection can’t be overstated.

“Every time we get together. These ladies have been good enough to figure out little things that we could do in a half an hour, 45 minute session or an hour session. And everybody just laughs at each other and laughs. It's grown. Yeah. It's just been very, very rewarding,” said Brzezicki. “I find that we're getting more and more comfortable with each other as time goes on and things I've talked wanted to talk about at the start. It's all free and clear. Now we just gotta let it roll.”

“If you get to know me anymore, you'll probably ask me to leave,” said Bob Wiltshire to laughs.

The program is set to continue. And with positive cases of COVID on the rise, the virtual meet-ups look to be the only safe gatherings available for this group. Duval said she’s learned to plan ahead more as she’s worked via Zoom.

“It’s kind of planning the tour part in a PowerPoint part, planning the activity, make an activity sheet and then take step by step pictures normally so people can see what we're going to do. This is the materials list that you're going to get,” Duval said. “And then recently we've been kind of packaging little kits, art kits together and pick them up from the Alzheimer's Association because we like to experiment in this group. We like to challenge ourselves and work with different types of materials.” 

Group members have painted, drawn and even baked clay. It’s been an art class from home.

Duval said moving forward, parts of this program may remain virtual for good.

“It might be that that's one way to expand our reach to people who would find it more challenging to kind of come into town or meet for the in person programs, it does provide a certain amount of flexibility, which is really nice to have,” Duval said.