University of Alberta med students bring therapeutic art to isolated seniors

A group of Edmonton seniors have contributed to an art display inside the Southgate Centre shopping mall.

The group used self-portraits to express how COVID-19 has impacted their lives.

Devonshire Continuing Care Centre resident Hazel D’hont said it’s been a challenging few months.

“I do feel lonely. My daughter and son can only visit me by the desk (at the front of the facility),” she said. “If the doors were wide open (and back to normal), they would come anytime.”

Drawings inside Southgate Centre
Drawings inside Southgate Centre. Courtesy: Danielle Portnoy

The 87-year-old woman said she has missed the regular programming that happened before COVID-19.

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“We did all kinds of things, especially bingo. I love bingo,” D’hont said. “You just kind of sit around now… and it’s been like that for many months.”

Read more: Edmonton seniors’ centre reopens to help with socialization through COVID-19

The therapeutic art project that she took part in was created by two medical students at the University of Alberta.

Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy have prior experience working in long-term facilities doing recreational therapy.

Read more: Workers inside Good Samaritan Southgate say resident care is being neglected

Makhani works part-time at Devonshire and Portnoy’s late father lived in a long-term care facility. The project’s name “Seniors Advocacy Movement” was chosen because the acronym SAM matches her father’s name.

“When I visited my dad, I felt that even before the pandemic, many people there were lonely and isolated. So now, with family restricted from visiting, it must be worse,” Portnoy said.

Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy
Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy. Courtesy: Danielle Portnoy

The students chose the project because they had seen research that community art programs help combat isolation in seniors.

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“It’s a way to show their feelings,” Portnoy said. “And then putting it in Southgate makes it like they are socializing with people in the mall… but distantly.”

Asad, who helped participants with the activity, said the residents were excited about painting.

“We sat down one-on-one and a lot of them were really excited to participate in the activity. They mentioned they hadn’t painted in so long,” he said. “They were a lot happier. They were more engaged. It was a drastic change in their mood.”

The two students hope to bring the project to other long-term care facilities in the city.

Read more: ‘From here to the box’: Seniors voice terrifying concerns on long-term care amid COVID-19

“As long as it’s following Alberta Health guidelines, we would like to provide canvas and paint and expand to other long-term care facilities in the city,” Portnoy said.

D’hont said the art project was fun, but she valued the interaction it brought the most.

“It was nice to have more people around me. It certainly was. If we can open our doors once again… I’ll be happy.”

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