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Arts and Alzheimer’s


Once a month, on a Tuesday, when The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is closed to the public, MoMA especially opens its doors to a group of older people who are in their early to mid stages of dementia and Alzheimer’s. MoMA is one of the first museums in the United States to offer a tailor made program, called “Meet Me at MoMA,” to make its special exhibitions and collections accessible to those suffering from these diseases, but also their caregivers and families.

During a 90-minute session, small groups – usually no more than eight people with dementia in addition to their family members and caregivers – led by a special trained museum educator, discuss four or five works of art. The quiet galleries are the décor for stimulation and socialization, which is fundamental to the program, and do not only appear to help improving the quality of life and the behaviour and mood of people who suffer from Alzheimer’s, but also create a sense of community to combat isolation – which is inherently linked to his disease – of their family members and caregivers.

“At MoMA we strive to enable all visitors to find meaning and pleasure in modern and contemporary art,” says Francesca Rosenberg, Director of Community, Access and School Programs at MoMA.

Rosenberg explains that MoMA developed and designed the “Meet Me at MoMA” Program in 2006 as a response to the fact that there were not enough recreational opportunities for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s and their family caregivers in New York City to enjoy arts and spend time together. “We feel we are a great medium to bring people together. We offer people a safe and comfortable place to spend time together, to explore their own interests and to give them the feeling that they are not alone.”

The program itself is very interactive. People are brought together and are encouraged to have conversations and interpersonal connections. participants’ life experiences, along with the changes relating to their cognitive abilities lead to great insights, interactions, and ways of seeing the world, are of great importance in the program, according to Rosenberg.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking, and behavior. Symptoms of Alzheimer’s usually develop slowly and get worse over time. According to a Facts and Figures 2012 Report released by the Alzheimer’s Association, 5.4 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease, of whom 5.2 million are aged 65 and over . Of Americans aged 65 and over, one in eight has Alzheimer’s, and nearly half of people ages 85 and older have the disease. By 2050, up to 16 million Americans will have the disease. After breast cancer, prostate cancer, heart disease, stroke and HIV, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States. Moreover, Alzheimer’s is one of the few causes of death among the top 10 in the United States that cannot be prevented or cured. Nonetheless, treatment for symptoms is available and research continues.

In 2008, MoMA teamed up with New York University’s Center of Excellence for Brain Aging and Dementia to study people in the early stage of Alzheimer’s and their family caregivers, who are the primary audience of the program. The study measured the self-esteem and subjective impression of family relationships of both the person with dementia and the caregiver. The results of this evaluative study have shown that art can trigger both intellectual and emotional stimulation in people who are suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Participating in art can stimulate emotions that engage parts of the brain that are less damaged in the earlier stages of the disease. It has also shown that the mood of caregivers improved as a result of the program experience.

“The program is critical for both persons with Alzheimer’s and their family members,” explains Nancy Lee Hendley, Dementia Care Trainer at the Alzheimer’s Association, New York City Chapter.

An important part of the goal at the NYC Alzheimer’s Association is to create a sense of community to combat isolation. “It is not only the people suffering from Alzheimer’s, but also their family members who become isolated. They are usually forgotten. Now they can go out to a place that provides stimulation of socializing in an enjoyable environment.”

Hendley teaches dementia care to professionals like home care workers and nursing assistants. Her predecessor taught dementia care to the MoMA educators on the program. Having a master’s degree in painting herself, she knows how important it is to communicate with people without using words. “Using arts is directly communicating,” says Hendley. “That is why arts and this program are so important for people with Alzheimer’s.”

Hendley further explains that what people with early-stage Alzheimer’s really want and need is a place and an opportunity to express themselves, to connect with others who are going through the same experience and to maintain meaning in their lives.

“The program is a real revelation,” says Karen Richardson, who joined the program together with her mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and passed away (age 92) in May this year. Richardson learned about this program from a magazine article a little more than three years ago and says she was delighted to join. For Richardson the fact that MoMA is closed to the public when it hosts the Alzheimer’s community makes the difference. “The noise from regular tourists can be very annoying and disturbing,” says Richardson.

“Just being able to spend so much time in front of arts and the sensitivity with the pacing of discussing the arts by those specially trained people is impressive,” says Richardson. “I was even surprised how much I could see in an art object.”

When Richardson’s mother was not so verbal anymore, arts stimulated her ability to react through her facial expressions. “You could see her being surprised and enjoying the arts that she saw,” she explains.

According to Richardson, the effects of attending a session were visible in many aspects. “I noticed that when we brought my mother home, she was more attentive and lively,” says Richardson. “You could even notice this from her walking.”

The program has shown that arts is very valuable for those suffering from Alzheimer’s as well as their caregivers and family members. “My mother was accepted for who she was, and she loved the attention that she got. In fact, everybody got the attention that he or she needed,” says Richardson. “It definitely gave my mother more pleasure during the last three years.”

From anecdotal feedback that MoMA receives and the fact that attendees of the program return month after month speaks to the meaning and value it holds for those who join. “Even though memory may be affected by the Alzheimer’s disease,” says Rosenberg, “the imagination is still rich and very much alive.”