Hassan Hajjaj, “Nisrin” (2010), Metallic Lambda print on 3mm white Dibond, painted wood, and aluminum cans, 53 1/2 × 36 3/4 inches (135.9 × 93.4 cm). (Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.)

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a special group of visitors regularly gathered in the lobby of the Nasher Museum at Duke University for an important series of art tours. Over the past six years, Reflections: The Nasher Museum Alzheimer’s Program has invited individuals who are in early- to mid-stage Alzheimer’s to engage with the art held in the Nasher’s collection. 

Before March 11, the groups met in person. However, due to extra precautions related to the novel coronavirus and North Carolina’s stay at home orders, the Nasher pivoted the program virtually via Zoom. Since shifting the sessions online, attendance has skyrocketed as meetings increased from two to five sessions per week. The virtual format has proven to be particularly beneficial to a community that is not only more susceptible to the coronavirus because of age, but also especially vulnerable to loneliness caused by social isolation.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, over five million Americans over the age of 65 are living with the degenerative brain disease that affects memory and cognitive function. It is also the primary cause of dementia — as memory fades, relationships with family and friends also erode. For those living with dementia during this global pandemic, symptoms of loneliness are further exacerbated as they are cut off from vital services and relationships that offer special connections that alleviate loneliness.  

Studies show that music and art therapies engage dormant areas of the brain that have not yet been impacted by the disease. While patients with Alzheimer’s struggle to access memory, these activities offer patients and caregivers an experience that Creative Gerontologist Anne Basting calls a “shared path of discovery.” 

In a recent Reflections session held last Friday, a small group of attendees participated in a 40-minute talk facilitated by a pair of Nasher moderators. After a few minutes of pleasantries the group begins its virtual tour; the theme for the day was “On the Road Again,” a nod to the upcoming Memorial Day holiday. Moderator Jessica Ruhle displays the first work to the group, which is a brightly colored photograph by Hassan Hajjaj depicting a woman in a printed green and white caftan, hat, and veil sitting on a white scooter that’s situated in front of a bright turquoise door. Framing the photograph is a series of soda cans with a recognizable logo. The two moderators take turns leading the discussion, asking participants open-ended questions about what they see. The group is observant, identifying unique details about the 3-D piece, then a series of more pointed questions from participants ensues: the cans look like Pepsi, but what language is this? Where was this image taken? After a few minutes of visual sleuthing, participants share their theories and opinions, and the name of the artist and title of the work is finally revealed.

The discussion continues with moderators asking the group questions that open the door for more meaningful connections. As the group becomes more comfortable with one another, their personal stories begin to unfold through their anecdotal observations. The connections made between their personal experience and the artwork also become more astute. 

One participant thought the model’s caftan looked like a soccer flag, and her hunch was quickly affirmed by a moderator, as the dress was indeed made from a Raja Casablanca flag. Another virtual visitor, upon examining the soda cans written in Farsi, recalled a 1961 Pepsi jingle: “For those who think young.” A third participant continued this train of thought by discussing the timeless quality of the work as evidenced by the artist’s juxtaposition of the old and new in the image.

This thoughtful engagement is carefully moderated using best practices that the Nasher adapted from the original iteration of the program, and now the museum is eager to export this digital platform more broadly. Moderator Jessica Ruhle, the Nasher’s Director of Education, elaborates on this unique opportunity to connect to a broader audience: “In the six years of our Reflections program, the Nasher has always recognized that the number of people we can serve in Durham is a drop in the bucket compared to the need of people with dementia.” The museum created an updated template of virtual engagement best practices to share with other institutions.

Back in the virtual art talk, the spirit of collegiality continues in a robust discussion around three additional works of art — a painting, a piece of Southern vernacular sculpture, and a photograph. When the group’s time was up, Ruhle cued a song to close out the session, but when the video link failed, a resourceful participant sprang into action and took out her phone and played Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again.” As Nelson’s chorus ushered the end of the session, the virtual room was full of smiles and gleeful good-byes after experiencing a special connection, together.

Reflections: The Nasher Museum Alzheimer’s Program is offered through the Duke Family Support Program. Select sessions are also open to the public. For additional information on the program, and to sign up for a tour, please contact the Nasher Museum

Colony Little is a Los Angeles–based writer and founder of Culture Shock Art. As a Bay Area native and long-term Southern California resident, she covers emerging contemporary art in California with...