Senior Care During COVID-19: Supporting Seniors at Home Through Telehealth

Michelle Baker

Arts for the Aging (AFTA) serves older adults and caregivers, especially those impacted by aging related physical and cognitive impairments in the Greater Washington DC area. Signal sat down with Janine Tursini, Director & CEO of AFTA to discuss how in the wake of COVID-19, the organization is transitioning to provide online therapeutic multi-disciplinary Arts workshops and deliver heART Kits to people at home.


Signal: What is your organization’s mission?

Tursini: Arts for the Aging’s mission is to engage older adults and caregivers in health improvement and life enhancement using all manner of art-making to do it: Music, painting, drawing, dance, storytelling, poetry programs and more. We’ve got a professional faculty of 25 artists (we call them teaching artists) who we train to work with a range of community-based settings – with client partners like adult day programs, assisted living communities, memory café’s, senior centers, community centers, affordable housing communities, and nursing homes. Traditionally these workshops have taken place at these sites, where older adults live or already attend programs. Over the course of a typical hour long workshop, the teaching artist’s goal is to foster joy, connection, and self-expression by engaging participants in using the creativity and imagination that resides in us all. It’s not about teaching or learning an artistic skill, it’s about being in the moment. And we know through emerging bodies of research over decades that regular participation in the arts can foster improved health outcomes.


Signal: How has your organization had to adjust due to COVID-19?

Tursini: As with many organizations, we too have moved our administrative functions to fully teleworking. In terms of our programs and delivering our mission, all our workshops have moved from in-person to online, including live and pre-recorded programs. And, to address the digital divide, for so many who don’t have access to online programs, our client partners deliver heART Kits, which are visual art projects that come with prompts and instructions, as well as meals, to seniors and caregivers at home. Re-inventing “creative aging” in virtual times is inventive, improvisational, grassroots, and technical! Our staff is incubating and training together with our teaching artists, and we are re-learning what client communities and artistic faculty need during this ‘new now.’


Signal: What’s on the horizon for virtual arts programming for health? Do you think it’s here to stay?

Tursini: Even when we can be back together to conduct our signature in-person multidisciplinary arts workshops in community-based settings, we intend to continue running virtual programs. We see this as an opportunity to expand our reach more readily to older adults isolated at home, and to those beyond the Greater Washington DC region.


Signal: Can you share an example of an innovation or success story that might not have happened without COVID-19?

Tursini: We have always been interested in connecting more closely and more regularly to family caregivers. Because our flagship model means we’re connected directly to professional caregivers who work in the community-based settings we serve, this dream to work with family caregivers has been a struggle. Now that most of our client partners (sadly) are shut down to outside visitors, and/or are closed to their clients aside from virtual and telehealth modalities, we’re literally ‘seeing’ family members join in our programs on the other side of the screen because our core participants are logging-in or dialing-in from home. We’re excited by the exposure to family caregivers, whom we hope will derive respite and newfound meaning-making by joining their loved one in our workshops, and find self-care in engagement with the arts themselves.


Signal: Do you have any predictions about the future of virtual programming for seniors with dementia?

Tursini: For professional artists and seniors alike, removing the barrier of travel to get to a program opens up the possibility for even more frequent community connection, arts participation, and expanded reach.


Signal: Do you see any policy or regulatory challenges that need to be addressed to facilitate/ensure virtual programming use for the long term?

Tursini: The digital divide for older adults in underserved communities is real. Culturally, Americans seem more focused on the critical nature of educational continuity for children and youth—to the detriment of generations of older adults who have worked tirelessly for decades blazing trails and paving the way for us. I believe that the participatory arts and artists working in health care should be eligible for Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement, whether the programs are virtual or in-person. Arts for the Aging is an evidence-based best practice in creative aging; one that demonstrates how regular acts of artistic self-expression reduce loneliness stemming from social isolation, and increase joy and wellness.  What we are becoming is a key rationale for the benefits of professionally-led and regular arts participation as a standard model for health and well-being, not to mention living vibrantly throughout our lifespans.



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