The Nov.–Dec. issue of Generations Today features fine art, poetry and prose from ASA members. One piece specifically addressed how to tap the creativity of people living with dementia. Read the whole issue here.
“I can’t believe I created that!” a nursing home resident living with dementia exclaimed to the college student sitting beside her as the pair admired an abstract artwork created moments before. The two worked together for several weeks in the Opening Minds through Art (OMA) program.
OMA is an award-winning, evidence based, intergenerational art program that pairs high school and college students with people living with dementia. The mission of the program is to build bridges across age and cognitive barriers through art.
I (Elizabeth Lokon) founded the program in 2007 by combining my background in education, art and gerontology while in graduate school at Miami University. The program started locally at The Knolls of Oxford, a retirement community in Oxford, Ohio, and has since grown to more than 200 communities in North America. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, next year I will have the privilege of taking OMA to Indonesia. Meghan Young, OMA’s associate director, will tend the home fires while I am away.
How It Works
People can participate in the program on three levels: as artists, volunteers and facilitators.
Artists: Because OMA is grounded in person-centered care principles, the artists (people living with dementia) can freely create and make their own choices regarding their artwork. OMA enables people living with dementia to assume new roles as artists and teachers and leave a legacy of beautiful artwork for family members to cherish. Most older adults in the program started out not seeing themselves as artists. But, through failure-free abstract art-making processes and with the support of trained volunteers, they come to see themselves as artists. At the end of the year, we celebrate their creativity with an art show.
‘I love watching the relationship between artist and partner blossom.’
Volunteers: Volunteers in the program are typically high school or college students, who complete a two-hour training course. The training teaches them how to promote dignity, autonomy and creativity when working with someone who is living with dementia. These volunteers spend one hour each week with the same partner for 8 to 10 weeks. Through these interactions, students develop empathy and skills for building friendships with someone outside their usual circle of friends.
Facilitators: The facilitators are typically staff members in the retirement community or adult day center. They run the entire program for 10 to 12 pairs at a time. After completing a 20-hour training (online or hybrid), these facilitators guide the volunteers and artists through their art-making journey together.
One facilitator said, “I love watching the relationship between artist and partner blossom. Even though a resident might come to the session sleepy or tired, they were happy and talkative at the end of the hour.” Many facilitators have echoed this sentiment, finding the engagement between generations to be meaningful for both volunteers and artists.
Research shows that OMA participation benefits the individuals living with dementia and the students who volunteer. Nine research studies have studied various aspects of the program.
A pre-/post-test comparison showed that volunteers have more positive attitudes toward and general liking of people living with dementia (Lokon, Li & Kunkel, 2020; Lokon, Li & Parajuli, 2017). Volunteer reflections reveal that most students thoroughly enjoyed working with the artists (Lokon, Kinney & Kunkel, 2012). One student said, “Through my experiences at OMA, I realized that everyone has potential no matter what their limitations or age. These characteristics are no barrier and at OMA, everyone is equal and can have fun!”
In March 2020, we continued our mission of using art to build intergenerational connections by developing virtual OMA. We moved away from solely visual arts to include other art forms: poetry, story-building, music and art-viewing. Older adults living with and without dementia met with Miami students weekly for 9 to 10 weeks over Zoom. In lieu of the art show, we celebrated the end of the semester with a virtual party where students presented their final gifts to their partners. These gifts showcase the creative highlights during the semester, as well as life lessons and gratitude for their older adult partners.
‘These nine weeks have been the most rewarding of my life. I learned so much.’
One older adult from the virtual program said, “I want to tell you that these nine weeks have been the most rewarding of my life. I learned so much. Y’all also gave me such joy and I fell in love with all three of you! [Referring to the students.] Thank you for such a wonderful experience I will never forget.”
Preliminary data suggests that students in virtual OMA show the same general improvements in their attitudes and liking of older adults as the in-person OMA program. This success inspired us to create a new program, ScrippsAVID (Arts-based, Virtual, Intergenerational and Dementia-friendly). ScrippsAVID connects older adults, including those living with dementia and their care partners, with younger adults to share art, music, poetry and stories. ScrippsAVID will be easy to use, ensuring that anyone can navigate the site and complete the activities. Participants will be matched with a person from a different generation to get to know each other and complete art activities together. The goals of the program are to reduce loneliness and ageism.
We are grateful for the opportunity to connect generations with innovative programming and continue building meaningful relationships, in person and online.
Visit ScrippsOMA.org to learn more about the program and sign-up to receive quarterly newsletters from OMA.
Contact: ScrippsOMA@MiamiOH.edu, or 513-529-2914
Meghan Young, MGS, is associate director of OMA at the Scripps Gerontology Center at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Elizabeth “Like” Lokon, PhD, is the founder and director of OMA.
Photo caption: A resident at the Knolls of Oxford and Miami University students in the OMA program.
Photo credit: Scott Kissel