Fostering Connection in a Time of Social Isolation

Written by: Laurie Kilgour-Walsh


Artful Moments has never been about teaching art, but instead, about fostering shared experiences. January is Alzheimer’s Awareness Month in Canada, so as this year’s sessions become available for registration, we are reflecting on how this pivotal wellness program has evolved and at times thrived with our unprecedented times.

Artful Moments - Artful Moments Fostering Connection in a Time of Social Isolation e1679172048922

Where we began

We do not need to tell you how the world has changed in the last two years. For some of our community’s more vulnerable individuals, it has been a time of deep isolation. Many of us may have thought virtual delivery was a short-term measure to continue our work, but we have since learned that these programs and options for social connection have the potential to be so much more. The pandemic brought to the forefront the impact of social isolation on our health and wellbeing, but also the opportunity to create a new and better ‘normal’.

We began with a simple conversation about art with a small group of people living with late-stage dementia. During this simple act of looking and discussing, we saw a move away from disease-focus to the sharing of experiences. Memories were sparked, opinions were shared, and we saw real social engagement. They were living in a moment free of dementia. We knew then there was a role for the Gallery to enhance the wellbeing of persons within our community.

Artful Moments - A participant proudly shares a painting she made with her daughter and the rest of the group.

What emerged

The program that emerged from this experience was called Artful Moments, bringing together expertise in art and art education, with the health care team sharing knowledge of the impacts of dementia and proven strategies for engagement.

If a year ago I had been told that my husband and I would get involved with art and art galleries I would have laughed and my husband would have been very upset at the mere thought, that someone was making fun of him. Neither he nor I had ever displayed any interest in art.

Then we had several experiences… I can’t explain how this made me feel. I could have cried at seeing him getting some joy at doing something so totally foreign to him. I knew the memory would be mine only.

The thought that someone cared enough to try and improve the quality of life of the patients affected by dementia has overwhelmed me and I can’t tell you how strongly I feel about this incredible initiative.

The stigma or fear associated with a diagnosis or visible disability shrinks one’s social connections. One of the biggest health and social care challenges of the 21st century has been stated to be “social isolation and loneliness”. Our research demonstrated that Artful Moments was a viable solution to this problem. The program combines looking and talking about art from the #AGHCollection with hands-on activities over a multi-week program. We have evaluated the program for engagement and social connection and have observed its participants rekindling a love of art from earlier in their lives or discovering it for the first time. We use art as a tool to inspire conversation, sharing and joy.

When Covid-19 hit Canada in March of 2020 we closed our doors and turned to virtual programs. Artful Moments pivoted even more successfully than anticipated. The heart of the program is using art as a vehicle for meaningful engagement and social connection. Artful Moments has never been about teaching art. Instead, we have a deep focus on shared experiences.

What is it about art that brings enjoyment to our participants? In some cases, it is an aesthetic experience, in others, seeing images of people and places that inspire familiarity and memory. And in others, it is having their voices and ideas heard and appreciated. We realized that if we could keep that, the format didn’t matter.

“I loved the painting and the process of it. I have tried courses before but haven’t found they worked very well. [Artful Moments] satisfies a need to look and paint and create. I enjoy being able to work on my own in between sessions and to be connected with a group. This program has enhanced living, and it is something I look forward to each week.”

Some of our participants joined with a care partner, and where needed, the partner managed the computers. Others participated independently. One of the wonderful things about virtual programming was that geography became irrelevant. A participant in Hamilton who joined us with her son-in-law from home, was also joined by her son and grandson in Calgary, a shared experience that could only happen virtually.

Although internet-based programming was a success, we were well aware that for many members of our community, technology posed a significant barrier. Where virtual programs offered exciting ways for people to connect, they still left many people isolated. Building on the core successes of art and connection we recognized other needs within our community and expanded our reach to try something new: Artful Moments over the phone. Having already taken the leap into gallery experiences with no gallery, the next step of art talks with no screens wasn’t such a big one.

Artful Moments - A participant paints a blue sky.  We demonstrate activities step by step, but encourage participants to work in their own way.
Artful Moments - Janis works with two participants during a hands-on activity.
Artful Moments - Laurie talks to a group of participants about a mural in the AGH lobby by Lester Coloma.
Artful Moments - Shannon and Janis talk about the program Art Kit with a participant.

Artful Moments has begun to build a virtual community – participants never meeting in person, but connected across the city, the country. Miles apart yet, no distance separated their ability to create friendships and ease the social isolation we have all been feeling.

“We had so much fun tonight. All four of my children have severe disabilities and we participate as a family. When we registered, I was not sure if the program would be a good fit but thought that it was worth a try. It is fabulous. Each of my children get something different out of the program. One participates with hand over hand assistance, getting to feel the textures of the materials, engaging in a joint activity. My eldest, who has a rare genetic disorder resulting in profound intellectual and physical disabilities, loves listening to the art discussions, his muscles are stretched as we move through the activities and he enjoys time with mom. My 15-year-old is the one most able to express their delight in a job well done, and it allows them to be creative without having to follow the directions from a parent. 

We have been isolated for 431 days, thank you for this program.”

Don’t forget to view additional educational programs through the Art Gallery of Hamilton, by clicking HERE.