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Art for the Elderly–Assisted by AI

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March 6, 2023

By Jeff Wilson–

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. At the Andrus on Hudson Nursing Home, folks get more than that.

The facility, located in Hastings-on-Hudson, has added a new feature to its art classes: a computer app that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to draw what people tell it to. They don’t need a pencil or paintbrush – just an imagination.

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In an interview with The Hudson Independent, Andrus CEO James Rosenman discussed the recent acquisition of DALL-E, a new software that can “create original, realistic images and art from a text description” with the ability to “combine concepts, attributes, and styles” according to its website. DALL-E (possibly a nod to legendary surrealist painter Salvador Dali?) is a product of OpenAI, the company that also manufactures the language bot ChatGPT. With DALL-E, one describes an image in their mind’s eye, the counselor transcribes it and the computer does a rendering, making adjustments as commanded. Unlike pictures on the internet which already exist, DALL-E generates original images in real time.

“When the AI art engines became available to the public, we pondered how we could use it in an interesting and novel way for the benefit of our residents,” explained Rosenman. “Most people aren’t skilled artists. They paint, they draw, but they don’t all have the ability to get the idea or the vision in their head onto a piece of paper. But what if we had somebody, a staff member, sit down with residents that have varying medical needs or cognitive impairments who are interested in participating in a project where they can use their imagination, their ideas and transfer that digitally?”

Joining the interview was Ashley Scala, Andrus’s Community Life Manager—she’s the one who actually conducts the DALL-E program on iPads—to describe its implementation. “I took a resident who has dementia and asked her ‘If there’s anything in this world you could draw or paint, what would it be?’ She said, ‘I would love to paint my house that my parents lived in in Ireland.’ So I typed in oil painting of a cement house in Ireland, and the app generated four different houses. She focused on one, telling me it reminded her so much of her parent’s house where she grew up.”

“When she saw it, she was in tears,” Rosenman added.

Winifred Breen’s Irish house

Scala continued to discuss the program’s value to the residents’ self-esteem: “Even though the woman has dementia, she was so proud of herself. And it’s the overall outcome that’s important. It got her talking in detail about how she grew up in Ireland. And her daughter, when she came to visit, verified the close resemblance of the houses. I can print the pictures and frame them so the residents can have them in their room.” (They’re also exhibited in a slide show on TV screens in the lobby.)

Rosenman and Scala described a patient who went wild with enthusiasm when his memory of a beach came out exactly as he imagined it. “He could not believe that through nothing but an iPad his creation of a beach scene could come to life,” Scala recalled.

Sheila Moore’s Eye

A visit to a class on another day found some residents letting their imaginations run wild, with Scala typing in zany images of animals they wanted to see: a dog and cat dancing; a tall thin man training a purple dog on the moon; a mad scientist Panda bear mixing sparkling chemicals. One exception to these flights of critter fancy was Richard, a wheelchair-bound Mets fan whom Scala later identified as suffering from agitation.

“’You said you want to see baseball?’” she asked him. “’So just go into more depth with it. Talk to me.’” Upon hearing his description, Scala replied, “We could try that.” Richard loved the result—an oil painting of a batter striking out. “It’s amazing,” he declared. “There’s no limit. You can go through this for hours.”

“The art calms him,” Scala shared.


Ashley Scala explains to residents how it works

Two days later, class was held in the Memory Care Unit, where the dementia patients stay. Here, Scala’s challenge to draw the residents out was even greater, since many of them were unsure of what to make. Topics and/or pictures like the beach, children or Central Park triggered memories and led to conversations, if sometimes quirky ones. One notable picture came from a woman who said she had been a dental hygienist in Irvington. It depicted her family’s storefront grocery that existed once upon a time in the Bronx. (They’d lived in an apartment upstairs, she said.) The woman brought chuckles when Scala asked each member of the group where they’d like to travel. “Irvington,” she pronounced without hesitation.

Andrus’s staff is rightfully excited about AI art’s potential to improve patients’ lives. “It’s opening up doors,” said Scala. “It’s a new world for them.”

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