Creating Connections

Visual arts programming for people with Alzheimer’s disease flourishes

By Karen Shugart

Whether encouraged through the aid of professional art therapists in museums or assisted by trained volunteers in homes or care facilities, therapeutic art can provide much needed enrichment for people living with Alzheimer’s disease.

Building on the success of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City’s Meet Me at MoMA project that began in 2007, many museums have developed visual arts programs for people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia. They have organized gallery viewings, studio times and even Alzheimer’s cafes —all to stimulate creativity and encourage social connections among people with the disease, their caregivers and their communities.

In Tennessee, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art last year began a partnership with nearby Christian Brothers University that lets art therapy students observe and work with participants from a local day program. Art therapist Sarah Hamil says students supported the participants and their work, which included spending time in a gallery and studio, and publicly exhibiting their art.

One participant, she recalls, held her daughter’s hand in the gallery and pulled the younger woman straight to her painting. The participant had limited verbalization and significant memory loss, yet weeks after creating her artwork she could pick it out from the dozens of works on the walls. “The daughter just broke into tears and said, ‘Thank you for giving me my mother back,’” Hamil says. “[The mother] was so proud she could show that to her daughter.”

In Seattle, the Frye Art Museum has built a slate of creative offerings for people with memory loss. In addition to gallery tours and art-making classes, the museum has a monthly Alzheimer’s café, where people can socialize over food and music after a gallery discussion.

The Frye also created Bridges, which brings a specially trained teaching artist into the homes and care facilities of people living with more advanced dementia. It was a way to reach those unable to make it to the museum, says Mary Jane Knecht, manager of creative aging programs. “We’re very committed to our programs at the museum being relevant in the community,” Knecht says.

An analysis of Frye’s here:now tour and studio program, published in the March 2015 Dementia: The International Journal of Social Research and Practice, found that the program was well received by participants and care partners. Indeed, much research supports the validity of therapeutic art.

“Art really helps people with dementia where they’re at,” says Paige Scheinberg, an art therapist who works with the Brooks Museum. “Within a session, I’ll often absolutely see a change in affect—the way they express themselves nonverbally. Are they smiling more? Are their expressions changing? They’ll establish eye contact more. As the group progresses and they engage with the art, I’ll see that sense of anxiety or depression lift and there’s definitely a higher sense of engagement. With consistency, I think that we can begin to see some changes for the people who participate in other areas in their life.”

One reason is likely the safe, nonjudgmental atmosphere, says Brittany Halberstadt, education assistant for the Reflections program at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University in Durham, N.C.

“If you’re with a group of others who know what dementia is like and know what caring for someone with dementia is like, you don’t have to worry about those long pauses,” Halberstadt says.

The Nasher Museum in June held a symposium that drew more than 70 museum professionals from 23 states and three countries to discuss best practices in programming for visitors with memory loss. In April, the museum expanded its program to include public tours. Groups and individuals, along with their caregivers, can sign up for the tours, which can include guided discussions, hands-on art activities and live musical performances.

While many care facilities arrange museum trips, others offer on-site art expression and therapeutic art activities. The Cape Cod Museum of Art in Massachusetts regularly brings its art & conversation programs to assisted living facilities in bordering towns, says Benton Jones, education and outreach coordinator. Trained art educators facilitate discussions using reproductions from the museum’s collection. “We have conversations where there’s really no wrong answer, but it’s really a way of getting participants engaged and helping them make links to memories,” Jones says.