Through the Webcam: Zoom and Cognitive Health through the Lens of Care Facilities


“You chose a good time to call me,” Carole Dien laughs, explaining that her physical therapist had just placed a pain relief gel on her leg. “I’m supposed to stay still for thirty minutes. You have my undivided attention.” 

Ms. Dien lives at Cobble Hill Health Center, a nonprofit that serves the chronically ill and disabled. Located in the leafy residential neighborhood in Cobble Hill where distanced social interactions and mask-wearing is the new normal, the center got off to a tragic start: 55 COVID-19 deaths were reported to the state in April, the highest toll at any senior care center in New York. 

You might expect Ms. Dien to mention her boredom or ramble about the fact that she’s been confined to a bedroom for the past few months. She doesn’t—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Ms. Dien has taken advantage of the video conferencing platform, Zoom, to reinvigorate her community, hosting weekly art classes that give her and her fellow residents something to look forward to.

Among those who died is Ms. Dien’s friend, Kelly, whom she met through an art class. Over the phone, Kelly had told Carole about her symptoms: loss of taste, stomach pain, and fatigue. Kelly was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital, where her lung capacity deteriorated and she passed away.

“Kelly was an attorney,” Ms. Dien said. “She was vibrant and intelligent. She’d just bought a whole bunch of new clothes for the summer and she couldn’t wait for me to see what she’d gotten. She was only 60.” 

Even as nursing home communities grapple with the devastating consequences of COVID-19, they’ve had to adjust for the absence of socialization and address the needs of their increasingly isolated patients. For many residents, according to specialists, mental stimulation is a matter of life and death—it slows the onset of diseases like dementia or Alzheimer’s. Many facilities have accommodated the absence of social contact and mental stimulation by providing Zoom workshops and forms of therapy like Ms. Dien’s art classes. 

Leveraging her active presence in the building and her passion for education, Ms. Dien collaborated with Cobble Hill Health Center’s recreation board to establish a source of cognitive entertainment for residents. The home’s technicians figured out a way to connect Ms. Dien’s Zoom meetings on her iPad to a television channel. Residents who flip to that channel can view a scheduled class from the comfort of their rooms. 

Dien teaches every Monday at 2:30, mainly focusing on art history. “I’ll slip in some short story and poetry units just to mix it up,” she said. 

Along with having a Master’s degree in Art History, Ms. Dien has been a regular visitor of art spaces—the MET, MoMA, the Whitney, and Guggenheim—since she was a twelve-year-old. When she lived in Connecticut, Ms. Dien worked as an instructor for “Learning to Look,” an art appreciation program for elementary grades that values inquiry instead of lecturing. 

At Cobble Hill, Ms. Dien saves paintings to the camera roll on her iPad and shares her screen during Zoom meetings. Her first classes focused on deconstructing visuals and analyzing the social, political, and spiritual implications behind famous artwork. Recently, Ms. Dien hosted a session on the symbolic use of black and red in different paintings. Her next lesson is about positive and negative space through the lens of M.C. Escher’s works. 

“Ms. Dien’s program has kept art-lovers engaged and intrigued,” said Elaine Gay, the assistant director of therapeutic recreation at Cobble Hill. Having access to virtual social contact and classes like Ms. Dien’s over Zoom, she says, “has been remarkable.” 

Video conferencing has become indispensable to the residents beyond giving them access to workshops or therapy. It has become a necessary tool for survival. Ms. Gay explained that a resident tearfully watched her eldest daughter walk down the aisle through a virtual platform. Gay also said that the center had hosted a Zoom birthday party for a resident who turned 100 years old. 

Another resident was able to take part in a video conferencing memorial for her niece. “Despite the occasion, the resident expressed a feeling of relief and closure,” said Ms. Gay. “She was able to say goodbye and find comfort in speaking to loved ones she hasn’t seen in years.” 

For residents with Alzheimer’s disease, Zoom sessions are even more important. They provide crucial opportunities to verbalize emotions, retain basic motor skills, and find comfort through creative activities—activities that mitigate the progressive symptoms of the disease. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting closures have had dangerous effects on Alzheimer’s patients. According to UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, people living with Alzheimer’s are feeling more anxious and isolated than ever, and caregivers are observing marked declines in those with the disease. 

Despite the social and health benefits of Zoom, celebrated by those like Ms. Dien and Ms. Gay, video conferencing has not been unequivocally effective for all patients. Zoom was not enough to save one woman, Marie Gallo, who passed away recently from complications related to Alzheimer’s. “I believed the biggest reason my mother declined so quickly was because of social isolation due to quarantine,” said Maria Stokes, Ms. Gallo’s daughter. 

Before quarantine, Gallo would spend four hours each weekday at the ACT Care Group, a program based in Staten Island that focuses on strengthening, stimulating, and retraining the brains of those diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. “They would have music, dance, and craft activities,” Stokes said. “Based on the clientele, they would teach lessons about history or an upcoming holiday.”

After ACT closed due to COVID-19, care professionals would drop-off boxes of food at the clients’ homes. The care group raised money to purchase tablets for its clients and hosted Zoom meetings. 

“The majority of the people in our group have been receptive to telecare services,” said Ann Marie Selfridge, the founder of the ACT Care Group. “Some people are able to enjoy the Zoom meetings, but the sessions are not comparable to our clients being together.”

Gallo struggled to adjust to technology as a means of communicating and preventing decline.

Despite attempts at intervention through Zoom, walking around the house and knowing how to handle utensils became daily battles for Gallo. The situation escalated when Marie was bedridden for almost a month; eventually, she stopped eating and drinking water, and on July 3rd, died. 

“Besides my mom, there were five other clients who declined and passed away after the program closed,” Stokes said. “How much can you really do through a computer?”

While the use of video conferencing was not as beneficial to Marie and many like her, Ms. Dien reflects on the power of the virtual world in today’s age: “Can you imagine this pandemic without Zoom?”