Reconnecting Through Art: Dementia & The Museum Experience

 

 

Reconnecting Through Art By Alyson Martin & Nushin Rashidian 

From The New Old Age: Blog for the New York Times

At the Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, David Rosenberg, a guide, stood before a stone piece depicting a six-armed figure. “Now, what would be a good reason to have six arms?” Mr. Rosenberg asked his audience, a half dozen or so elderly adults with dementia and their caregivers.

“He has six girls,” said Manny Jacobson, 82, as his wife and caregiver, Lin Jacobson, laughed.

Once a month, in partnership with the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, the Rubin hosts “Mindful Connections,” a 90-minute tour tailored to the needs of those with dementia. It is hardly the only museum to do so: The Rubin program, introduced last September, was modeled after those at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the American Folk Art Museum and the Jewish Museum, all in New York. The Frye Art Museum in Seattle, the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis also offer programs for the elderly with dementia.

“Art offers them a way of communication that doesn’t rely on their verbal skills and allows them to contribute in a way that they don’t often get to do,” said Nancy Lee Hendley, dementia care trainer for the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

On one recent Friday, Karen Bedrosian Richardson, 65, attended “Mindful Connections” with her 90-year-old mother, Isabel Bedrosian, who is in the late stages of dementia. “What I get out of it is the enjoyment of learning about a different culture,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said. “And the opportunity to use a vocabulary that during the day I don’t get to use.” In caring for a relative with Alzheimer’s, she said, “the conversation with that person tends to be repeating the same thing over and over.”

The small group size makes for an intimate experience, Ms. Bedrosian Richardson has found, and the quiet space allows the guides to speak in soft tones, which her mother finds soothing.

“She’s alert for longer periods during the day, her walking is better, her responsiveness to stimuli around her in the home is better. It’s as though she’s been energized,” Ms. Bedrosian Richardson said.

Nancy Hano, 64, arrived with her 87-year-old partner, Leigh Wharton. Museum tours offer a welcome change of pace for caregivers, she said. “I don’t get out, ever. I don’t leave him. And here’s something we can do together,” she said. “This is a way for us both to do something together that’s fun, that he enjoys.”

Ms. Hano appreciated the trained guides in particular. “They’re very sensitive and understand that it takes a long time for the person to respond,” she said.

In the Rubin’s tours, participants are separated into two groups based on their physical and cognitive abilities. In the more limited group, many are in wheelchairs or cannot look up at the art, so guides offer them hands-on objects, like a piece of fabric or a small statue.

“Some of them are nonverbal, and they respond more to touch or to one-on-one presentation,” Mr. Rosenberg said.

In front of a football-size statue of Buddha, one participant began to nod off. After a guide knelt beside her with a photo of the statue and pointed to the Buddha’s red hat, which the group was discussing, the woman looked up, listened and rejoined the conversation.

The Rubin Museum, which displays Himalayan art, is well suited for such a program, said Ashley Mask, the museum’s visitor experience manager. Universal themes of compassion, impermanence and transition are reflected in many of the Tibetan Buddhist pieces, which make up most of the collection.

“That does lend itself to a population of people who are going through a real change in their lives,” Ms. Mask said.

Toward the end of the tour, participants offered their interpretations of the art. Ms. Jacobson, Manny’s caregiver, stared at a painting that depicted mourning over the closing of a village factory in India, yet she focused on a bridge and hills in the background. “They are on their way up, to another future,” she said.

A participant with dementia, Robert Randall, 88, seemed intrigued by a painting of a barefoot woman in a cloak who stared ahead, expressionless.

“She’s aware of youth and change,” Mr. Randall said. “She’s saying to herself, ‘Where from here?’”

 

 

Published on April 29, 2013.