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Frame of Mind: Art and Human Connection

Vivienne O'Neill of Citymeals on Wheels discusses how art has offered a lifeline to homebound seniors during the pandemic

Apr 15, 2022

In the early days of the pandemic, a small team in The Met’s Digital Department began working on a podcast series about art’s connection to well-being. We wanted to respond in some small way to the current moment: social justice movements, the pandemic, and the struggles we face as individuals, as communities, and as a planet. The resulting podcast, Frame of Mind, is a new expression of work that The Met has been pursuing for decades, including broader initiatives run by the Museum’s Education Department in art therapy, accessibility, and support for those with dementia.

Now that the podcast series has launched, we wanted to situate it in a wider context. This is the first installment in a series of interviews that highlight the work of our “wellness colleagues” in the larger community, and presents sometimes surprising connections between their work and the stories told by our guests on Frame of Mind.

Here, I spoke with Vivienne O’Neill, Senior Director of Volunteer Programs at Citymeals on Wheels. For forty years, the organization has been a lifeline for homebound seniors throughout the five boroughs and now provides home-delivered meals to nearly twenty thousand older New Yorkers. O’Neill has a unique perspective on the well-being of vulnerable communities during this time of crisis. As she says: “The two things we need as human beings to survive are nutritious food and human contact.”

I asked her about the organization’s recent collaboration with The Met’s Education Department to deliver what are called “Art Boxes” that contain art supplies and images of artworks in the Museum’s collection. Art Boxes launched as part of Citymeals’s Friendly Visiting Program, which pairs volunteers with isolated meal recipients in need of companionship. Speaking with O’Neill, I was reminded of an episode of Frame of Mind with the artist and poet Annie Lanzillotto, who explains how she connected with her elderly mother through their shared experience of a Tiffany stained-glass window, Autumn Landscape (1923–24).

Art supplies, like colored pencils and an eraser, and printed images of art featuring flowering trees in nature spread out across a marble countertop.

Art supplies and supplementary materials included in a recent Art Box. Photo courtesy Citymeals

Vivienne O’Neill:
For many of our seniors, the only people they will see in a given day is the person who delivers their meals. They sit in their apartment looking at all four walls or the television. The Friendly Visiting Program helped to mitigate the social isolation that many of our seniors encounter throughout their daily living.

Nina Diamond:
I’m curious how the Friendly Visiting Program has shifted focus in response to the pandemic.

The purpose hasn’t changed, but the components have. Prior to the pandemic, volunteers were going into the homes of the seniors to visit them face to face. With the pandemic, no one was allowed to visit the seniors. Right now, volunteers are able to visit the seniors in their homes if they’re fully vaccinated. However, when you talk about homebound seniors, many of them have not been vaccinated because they lack access or adequate support. Volunteers continue to make phone calls. 

Historically, homebound seniors are really not thought about because they’re not seen. Nobody sees them every day.

– Vivienne O’Neill

Historically, homebound seniors are really not thought about because they’re not seen. Nobody sees them every day. Citymeals on Wheels has made sure that our seniors are receiving their meals and getting those check-ins, so they don’t feel as isolated as they normally would have been.

Tell me more about The Met Art Box program that started during the pandemic.

The Art Boxes are geared toward our Friendly Visiting Program, in which a volunteer is matched with a senior. We have more than five hundred seniors paired with volunteers participating in the program. The volunteer will receive the exact same Art Box as their senior, and during their scheduled appointment, they will open the box and discuss what’s inside. There are cards of artworks, crayons, pencil sharpeners, and everything they will need to create their own art.

Many of the seniors have fond memories of going to museums and enjoying art, but are just no longer able to get out.

To clarify, each box has some postcards—maybe three or four—with images of objects in The Met collection?

I want to say four, but it varies. The first one included pictures of art by Tiffany & Co. There was one Art Box that had to do with tea and it included tea bags. There was one that had to do with the sense of smell, and seniors and volunteers received incense and a beautiful holder. They can light it and talk about what sort of image or memory it conjures for them. Every month is a different theme; that makes it interesting because the seniors look forward to what is next.

Left: Tiffany Studios (1902–32). Designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany (American, 1848–1933). Dogwood, ca. 1902–15. Leaded favrile glass, 100 x 56 in. (254 x 142.2 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Frank Stanton, in memory of Ruth Stephenson Stanton, 1995 (1995.204) Right: Footed Teapot, ca. 1750. British, Staffordshire. Salt-glazed stoneware with underglaze blue, 6 1/4 x 6 5/8 in. (15.9 x 16.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Carleton Macy, 1934 (34.165.96a, b)

The Art Boxes came at such a pivotal time because COVID just isolated everyone so much. Prior to receiving the Art Boxes, the volunteers were giving us feedback like, “I talk to my senior more now than when COVID wasn’t around.” But they were running out of things to talk about. When the Art Boxes arrived, it was sort of like, shazam, the skies opened up. It sparked a lot of conversations where the seniors talked about their experiences and related back to their childhoods. It’s just an extraordinarily delightful project.

Would you feel comfortable telling us about what it’s been like living with your mom, who’s fortunate enough to stay with you in these trying times? How has that been for you both?

My mom is an elderly New Yorker but she acts younger than I am. She lives in New York City and I’m in New Jersey. I brought her here with me to Jersey during the pandemic because my sister is here, too. I said, “It’s easier for you to be with me than for us to figure out if we have to come to you in New York. It’s better for you to stay with me.” I have a big old house and she has her own areas.

While she was here, she was glued to the TV, sitting there 24/7, watching. And I said, “Mom, stop.” I saw how she was becoming forgetful. She wasn’t engaging in conversations with me because she was listening to everything that was happening—the death, people being hospitalized. At that time I said, “Okay, I need to change this, I need to change her focus.” I got Netflix—I'm not a TV person, but I got Netflix. I was like, “You need to start watching some movies and stop watching the news.”

My mom started coloring and drawing. She weaned herself off the TV. I saw life coming back within her.

– Vivienne O’Neill

Then we started engaging in other activities. One of them was I when I received a sample Art Box. My mom started coloring and drawing. I ordered more coloring books for her and she weaned herself off the TV. I saw life coming back within her. It just changed her mindset. Now she goes to the gym six days a week. She leaves my house at nine o’clock in the morning and she comes back at about three o’clock!

What a great story. Thank you for sharing it. Can you tell us more about the results the program has had with other seniors?

It is an absolutely amazing program. We interviewed a couple of seniors and their volunteers. One of the seniors, Naomi, who’s in her seventies, her husband was admitted to the hospital—and while he was in the hospital, he got COVID. He recovered from COVID and was sent home. And once he returned home, he eventually passed away. So she had to deal with the grief of her husband passing away and living alone. She was paired with a volunteer named Diane, who’s been trying to mitigate Naomi’s tremendous grief of losing her husband.

With the Art Box, Diane was able to encourage her to do some sketching. One of the postcards that came to Naomi was of a ceramic plate. And it sparked a memory from her childhood days, when she remembers carefully handling her grandmothers set of dishes. It just sparked this light in her, to take her mind off of what was happening in her home life.

An upright round ceramic plate painted with images of flowers, some bent with red rose buds and some leaning in from the side with a purple tulip head.

Dish Depicting Two Birds among Flowering Plants, ca. 1575–90. Made in Turkey, Isnik. Stonepaste; polychrome painted under transparent glaze, 2 3/8 x 11 1/4 in. (6 x 28.4 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of James J. Rorimer in appreciation of Maurice Dimand’s curatorship, 1933–1959, 1959 (59.69.1)

There’s another senior who is a retired teacher. He was an artist but he stopped doing art because his income was very low and he couldn’t afford any supplies. When he received the Art Box, it made him so happy to start creating again because within the Art Boxes were the crayons, sketch pads, everything that he used to do. He talked about visiting the Museum when he was younger. Now that he’s older, he’s not able to visit the Museum. But these Art Boxes sparked something in him and threw him into another world.

Two images side-by-side. On the left, a colored pencil drawing of two red headed girls in a field full of plants and large butterflies. On the right, a photo of a senior woman holding up a sketchpad, on which a colored pencil drawing of a woman in a fancy outfit can be seen.

Original art created by Citymeals of Wheels clients Daisy and Naomi (pictured) inspired by art at The Met. Photos courtesy Citymeals

You know, I won’t say it takes them out of reality, but it puts them in a place where they feel comfortable, where they’re happy and can focus on other things outside of their illnesses.

I’m going to read you a quote that we got from one of our volunteers. It says, “It’s extraordinarily delightful to see the happiness their memories bring back to them as they recall their past. Looking forward to the next package.” That sums it up.

Thank you so much for speaking with me. I wish you the best with this important work.

This interview has been edited for publication.

Listen to Frame of Mind, an art and wellness podcast from The Met.