Museum program uses art to engage people with dementia

When June Leary joined The Hyde Collection last August as curator of education, she wanted to bring

Categories: Life & Arts

When June Leary joined The Hyde Collection last August as curator of education, she wanted to bring in new offerings that went beyond the programs for children and families already in place at the museum.

With two parents with Alzheimer’s disease, she was particularly interested in a program at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art designed for people with dementia and their family or caregivers. The monthly program, “Meet Me at MoMA,” includes an interactive tour and a classroom program with trained museum staff connecting themes and artists to spark conversation.

“They have an extensive model on their website for just such a program, and I also discovered that it had been picked up by other museums around the country,” Leary said.

The idea for The Hyde’s new program, “Here and Now,” was born.

Then synchronicity came into play. At about the time Leary decided to develop this program, the Alzheimer’s Center of Albany Medical Center got a grant from the Anne B. and Leon J. Goldberg Resource Program.

The center’s director, Beth Smith-Boivin, visited the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, where a similar program has proven very effective. She spent the day with docents and staff, and she came back brimming with enthusiasm for the possibilities for museums in the Capital Region. At the same time, staff at the Northeastern New York Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association were exploring programs on art and Alzheimer’s .

Working together, the three organizations created the “Here and Now” program, which uses the Hyde’s collection to provoke stimulating conversations that do not require participants to rely on short-term memory. Like MoMA’s program, the Hyde’s is geared to engage people with Alzheimer’s or dementia or who have suffered from a stroke, along with their caregivers.

“Collaboration is the key to everything these days,” said Gretchen Moore-Simmons, a professional development specialist at the Alzheimer’s Association.

Smith-Boivin also stressed the importance of working together. “For these programs to be successful, it really is a team effort,” she said. Each organization brings different skills and resources to the table, she said.

The Alzheimer’s Association went to the Hyde Collection to train its docents, a half-day program that docent Terry Graves of Queensbury described as brilliant and probably one of the best training programs he’s ever attended.

Graves, who led the first session of the program at the Hyde, said that the training highlighted three things that docents would have to do more acutely during this program than during regular museum tours: listen carefully to what people have to say; be aware of one’s own body language and tone of voice; and relate more to what the viewers are experiencing rather than just what they say.

Emotional response

This program is designed differently than others at the Hyde. “We’re not looking to educate somebody with Alzheimer’s on a piece of art,” Moore-Simmons said. “What we’re looking to do is to help engage them in that moment and to help elicit that response — maybe an emotional response — to an art piece.”

The program employs this approach because of the way that Alzheimer’s affects the brain. “Memory loss begins in an area of the brain that makes new memory,” Smith-Boivin said. “Early and into the moderate stages, people have difficulty reliably storing the new data.”

The program, which is limited to small groups of up to 12, including caregivers, is designed to encourage conversations that will bring up old memories.

Unlike a regular tour that covers different rooms and talks about the history of the works, the docents choose one or two spaces for the group. For example, they might gather in the library, where there is a collection of interesting works to spark discussion — Rembrandt’s “Christ With Arms Folded,” Ingres’ “Paolo and Francesca” and Degas’ “Horse at Trough” to name just a few. The group talks about the subject matter in the art. Docents might ask questions such as “How do you feel about that painting?” or “What do you see in this picture?”

“Responses go from there and the conversation develops,” Leary said, noting that the discussion may have little to do with the facts about a work of art, although these may be included. “We’re not asking for memories, but oftentimes it does inspire memories,” she said. Whatever the conversation, the docents go with it, engaging the caregivers as well.

Cory Seelye Dixon, the social coordinator at The Glen at Hiland Meadows, an assisted living facility in Queensbury, had seen before how art engaged residents during the “News Currents” program she runs. “Any time there is an art piece, it always gets people talking the most,” she said. Rather than having to remember something, people can just give their gut responses to a piece of art.

So far, the Hyde Collection has hosted the program three times for groups from The Glen, and, according to Dixon, they have enjoyed it immensely.

Positive impact

While those who take part might not remember having done it, the program has positive impacts on their emotional health. “Later that afternoon after they had been back to The Glen, the residents might not remember what they had done that morning, but they knew that they had had a good experience,” Moore-Simmons said.

While Leary hasn’t had an opportunity to do an in-depth assessment of the program because it is in its infancy at the museum, she did come across research about similar program at other museums, such as the Carnegie Museum. “Participants, after visiting a museum, had improved moods, and the conversations continued,” she said. “There was a kind of lifting of the spirit, and the communication improves.”

Smith-Boivin puts it simply: “When they feel they’ve had a productive day, they just feel better.”

The program benefits not only the people with Alzheimer’s , dementia or stroke but also their caregivers or “care partners,” the term Moore-Simmons and Smith-Boivin use. The program provides a vehicle for care partners to do an activity that is enjoyable, rather than tedious.

“It gives them an amazing sense of being able to connect with their loved ones and be able to share an experience that they haven’t been able to share for quite a while,” Moore-Simmons said.

Sheila Rorke, a companion caregiver for the Albany office of the home care agency Home Instead, has accompanied caregivers and clients to the museum for the program, which provided a welcome change of routine. Rorke said that the length of the program was good and didn’t put clients on “overload” and that they stayed engaged throughout the entire program.

Leary experienced the power of art with her own mother while she was coping with Alzheimer’s . “I remember looking at art with my mother in magazines or photographs, and that was one of the most enjoyable things we would do,” she said.

“It had a little substance to it. We could have a conversation about it that wasn’t asking questions, that wasn’t demanding.”

Reaching out

Leary has also taken the program off-site, showing projections of some of the artwork in the collection and stimulating conversation based on those.

In addition to its partnership with The Glen, Leary plans to reach out to others who could benefit from taking part in “Here and Now,” including caregivers’ support groups, adult day-care centers, senior centers and those who are caring for loved ones at home.

While this is the first program of its type in the area, Smith-Boivin also has her eye on expansion, as there are many museums in the Capital Region that could develop a similar program.

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