I am sitting in Seattle’s Frye Art Museum, in the midst of an average-seeming group of people, who are largely in their later years and sitting with a significant other. We are all focused on the large painting in front of us – a pastoral scene of peasants scything wheat in the countryside. As the museum guide urges us to take in the scene and tell her what we observe, she tells us that each visit has a theme and that the theme of our program today is, ‘Survival and Meaning: What We Long For’. I am visiting the museum today to take part in their bi-weekly gallery tour, here:now, for people with dementia and their caregivers, a popular program that helps dementia sufferers engage and interact with the world through works of art. The Frye offers this bi-weekly gallery tour that anyone can attend, although a reservation must be made, and a very popular artmaking class that takes place for six consecutive Wednesdays throughout the year. The class includes a gallery tour as well as artmaking and social time. Both programs are free, but advanced registration is required.
Our guide has been trained in techniques that will help her communicate effectively with dementia sufferers, and elicit interaction and participation. Only an experienced eye could pick out those among the group who suffer from dementia – most of them are in the early or middle stages of their disease. They call out comments to our guide and make detailed observations about the art we are viewing; everyone is interacting with their partner and other members of the group, and a lively discussion results. It is obvious that imaginations are being stretched and mental capacities are being used as individuals search for words and explanations.
The guide tells me that the choice of artwork is important; visual or pictorial paintings, anything around which a narrative can be developed, are preferred over conceptual art, which can be confusing and subjective. Studies have shown that in the middle to later stages of dementia, imagination is stronger than memory; encouraging dementia sufferers to observe a work of art and develop their own personal narrative about it is a way of allowing them to use those cognitive capabilities they still possess. More importantly, at least in my opinion, it encourages a feeling of continued connection with the world, with beauty and culture, and with others.
These programs are becoming more and more common in museums across the country, MOMA being one of the first with it’s Meet Me at MOMA Alzheimer’s project, focused on making art accessible for people with dementia.Through special funding, MOMA’s outreach program has helped develop resources that can be used by museums, assisted-living facilities, and other community organizations serving people with dementia and their caregivers. By conducting presentations and workshops at conferences and hosting in-person and Web-based trainings, MoMA has shared its experiences and resources with people across the country and abroad.
These programs serve an important dual purpose in that they foster engagement and self-discovery for dementia sufferers and their caregivers, while at the same time providing an enjoyable activity that can be done together. I remember trying to think of activities I could do with Dad that we would both enjoy and that would get us out of the house. It was hard for me not to feel bored and isolated and I imagine he felt that way, too. We did have several things that we did and enjoyed, including going out to lunch and to the Museum of Flight, but I could have used a lot more.
We all long for a sense of purpose, the feeling that we matter and are heard, the sense that we are connected and a part of the world – and that our lives mean something. I can only imagine that dementia sufferers feel this even more strongly than anyone else, and that they yearn for others to recognize that they are still part of the world. Caregivers aren’t far behind their charges in longing for connection and meaning; caregiving can be one of the most difficult and isolating undertakings of all. As I listen to the colorful and imaginative comments made by members of the group and watch their pleasure as they interact with and are listened to by others, I realize that this program is about more than just art and opinions. These programs provide a sense of connection with culture and the larger world, and in eliciting the opinions and imaginations of participants, they make dementia sufferers feel heard and that what they have to say matters. Listening to the colorful and imaginative comments made by members of the group and watching their pleasure as they interact and are listened to, I realize that today’s theme is very appropriate in that it has filled a longing - giving these people back a place in the world.
More from living