Student group organizes art therapy project for seniors during COVID-19 pandemic

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Asad Makhani worried that the seniors he worked with in long-term care, who already struggled with isolation, would see those feelings of loneliness amplified by the pandemic.

To address the problem, Makhani, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Alberta, created the Seniors Advocacy Movement with other students.

Makhani, who also works as a recreation aide at the Devonshire Care Centre, wanted to give back to the community.

The group soon came up with using art therapy, after learning how helpful it can be for people with dementia or who are in long-term care. It was especially helpful for residents with limited options for activities during the pandemic.

“It’s therapeutic for them and also gives them something to do during COVID times when a lot of activities are limited,” said Makhani, who was interviewed on CBC Radio Active on Wednesday.

“It allowed the seniors to express themselves, to draw themselves, and it’d be a venue to let out their feelings of how they’ve been isolated during the pandemic.”

The drawings of an art therapy project for seniors at the Devonshire Care Centre in long-term care. (Submitted by Asad Makhani)

The Seniors Advocacy Movement group takes the acronym for its name from Danielle Portnoy’s father Sam. Portnoy is a fellow driving force behind the group with Makhani.

The art project asks participants to draw their own faces and how they would see themselves. Many created a painting of themselves smiling, with some guidance through the process from Makhani.

The art pieces are an ongoing project that started over the summer. Currently, there about 25 completed. They’re hanging up for the public to see in a storefront at Southgate Centre. In mid-November, they’ll be displayed at a University of Alberta art gallery as well.

“It really helped me connect with them, and it’s something that I’m glad I’m able to do. It helped them improve their quality of life, and I’m pretty grateful for the opportunity,” Makhani said.

Asad Makhani and Danielle Portnoy are the driving force behind a group of medical students at the University of Alberta giving back to long-term care residents through initiatives like a recent art therapy project. (Supplied by Asad Makhani)

The project has only been held at Devonshire, Makhani said, due to the difficulty in getting access to other care centres during the COVID-19 pandemic. But once restrictions are reduced, Makhani said he’d like to bring this art project to other care centres.

The Seniors Advocacy Movement also held an online fundraiser earlier this year, putting the money toward essential items like toiletries for Devonshire residents. Makhani said they’re also hoping to hold another fundraiser later this year to buy Christmas gifts for care centre residents.

The art project was exciting for some participants who had experience painting before coming to the centre, Makhani said, adding it reminded some residents of their youth. One participant, Brian Wilkie, said he’d painted a lot in his life before and enjoyed being able to pick up this activity again.

“I felt very good when I could paint something and put some detail to it, and put some background to it,” Wilkie said.

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Johny Watshon

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