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Yale student’s virtual museum tours improve well-being in older adults

January 25, 2022
by Anna Lin-Schweitzer

Chances are you don’t think of health and well-being when you think of art museums. But Julie Averbach, B.A. ’22, does.

Averbach, a double major in Psychology and the History of Art at Yale College, became interested in the link between art and mental health in older adults during the pandemic. At a time when much of the public health guidance focused on protecting the physical safety of older adults, she noticed that fewer resources were dedicated to addressing the mental-health impact of isolation. In an effort to create social connection during a time of loneliness, she used her love of art to conduct virtual art museum tours.

Her first tour was an intimate, immersive Zoom slideshow for her grandparents and their close friends. From the safety of their homes, she guided them through the New York Museum of Modern Art – approaching the glass façade through the bustling lobby and into the gallery. Together, they traveled through multiple artistic movements, gazing upon a feminist self-portrait, striking Pop Art and a kinetic sculpture that reportedly inspired Albert Einstein. For each piece, she shared stories about the artwork and placed them in their unique contexts, interspersing the presentation with images of the artists in their studios or examples of the artwork’s contemporary legacies.

The tour was a hit, so she crafted another visit, this time to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Word spread, and she discovered an overwhelming demand for virtual museum visits. In July 2020, she formalized the program into her own nonprofit project, smARTee. To date, she has led tours for over 2,000 older adults, partnering with community organizations, religious groups and retirement communities across 18 countries.

“It’s been so rewarding and humbling to witness the response among older participants, from adults who hadn’t previously taken an interest in art history to former museum docents wanting to reconnect with their love of art,” Averbach said.

Yet she felt that there was more to her nonprofit than simply bringing people together through a passion for art. Over the summer of 2021, Averbach reached out to Associate Professor Joan Monin, Ph.D., at the Yale School of Public Health to explore whether this popular program could also be linked to mental health and well-being. In a senior thesis study advised by Monin, an expert in older adult mental health, Averbach conducted 12 live virtual art museum tours for approximately 580 older adults from across the United States and Canada. While doing so, she tracked several key well-being outcomes through questionnaires before and after participants viewed the art tour. Her study found that the tours fostered a statistically significant increase in positive emotions, awe and life satisfaction.

“Of all emotions measured, the most notable effect was an increase in ratings of awe, which is linked to profound aesthetic experiences and itself plays an important role in well-being,” she said.

Although the virtual tours were developed in the context of the pandemic, they also have important public-health implications moving forward. Past research has demonstrated the mental-health benefits of in-person museum and art gallery visits for older adults. However, accessibility barriers such as transportation or physical health challenges often inhibit older adults from participating in these experiences. Averbach’s study suggests that technology may be a powerful tool to continue delivering arts programming that enhances accessibility and health even after the pandemic.

Monin described working with Averbach as “inspiring and fun.”

“Her program is engaging, inspires great conversations about culture and social issues, and has created such a buzz in the senior living communities in Connecticut and beyond,” Monin said, “And now we have preliminary evidence to show it improves well-being. I can’t wait to see where her work goes next.”

Ultimately, Averbach hopes to create a full line of art tours showcasing global museums. As she heads toward graduation in the spring, she is eager to continue exploring how art can address pressing contemporary issues, highlight underrepresented voices and promote community health.

“I plan to design projects harnessing the power of visual arts to enrich our everyday lives and help us build a more equitable, empathetic society,” she said.

Submitted by Colin Poitras on January 22, 2022