The art program we call OMA (Opening Minds through Art) has become a coveted time of creative empowerment for the residents at St. Mary's Woods Retirement Community (SMW). For the last five years, the elders have enjoyed making sophisticated abstract artworks with the supportive friendship of a young partner.
When OMA came to an abrupt halt this spring and lock-downs began, the sudden increased isolation for the elders made the OMA community seem like a distant dream. But even as the pandemic shut us all in, we knew that art must go on.
With a lot of optimism, ingenuity, and perseverance from our partners at St. Mary's Woods, Virtual OMA was born. "She was about to do a cartwheel when I told her the news," said Nan Pascal, the Special Programs Coordinator, about one of the residents.
After much technical testing, four elders were paired with four trained volunteers from Virginia Commonwealth University. Art supplies for the week's project were packed, delivered, prepared, and served. The four artists donned their art aprons, along with masks and noise-canceling headphones. They sat at socially distanced tables, each in front of a computer screen. They would meet their partner for the first time over Zoom.
Meanwhile, the Art for the Journey office became a broadcasting studio. When Friday morning rolled around, we welcomed the elders and students to the Zoom art session with a familiar opening song and an inspiring art demo of the day's project. Then the partners were invited into "breakout rooms."
As the art process began and conversations carried on, the screens and wires faded away; the artists entered the "creative flow." When we all came back together to admire the beautiful artwork, Mr. W said without a moment's hesitation, "I can't wait for next week!" It wasn't just the elders who benefitted from OMA, however. One of volunteers reflected:
"OMA is a wonderful way to meet someone new and give people the opportunity to do something fun....I have learned that it is very heartwarming to the people that you are partnered with and not only does it mean something to them, it will also mean a lot to you since they are also taking the time to be there with you. My partner was sweet and simply amazing. Knowing that she looked forward to another session with me warmed my heart and made me feel good inside."
Even though most of us have experienced "Zoom fatigue" we are reinvigorated by the magic of Virtual OMA. Combined with the power of art, technology has helped to overcome both physical and generational barriers. Virtual OMA will continue into the new year to foster yet more creative well-being and connection for the elders at St. Mary's Woods, with hopes of inspiring many facilities to do the same.