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Alzheimers and the Arts: museums push forward novel approach to combating dementia

Terra Molengraff/Daily
Senior citizen looks on at "The Genius of the Dance". Buy this photo

By Jennifer Xu, Magazine Editor
Published May 21, 2012

Andrea Simons, a docent for the Detroit Institute of Arts, is giving a tour. She pauses at a sculpture called “The Genius of the Dance,” showcasing a man with long, flowing locks holding a tambourine. His body, taut with muscles, sways with the motion of the imaginary music.

“Do you like to dance?” Simons asks her audience, a small group of elderly adults – some in wheelchairs, some not – all with some form of dementia.

“If I looked like that, I would,” returns Louis Niebrzydowski, 86. Niebrzydowski, a former silhouette painter who has quit his trade since being transferred to assisted living five years ago, was brought to the DIA by his daughter, Diane, for the museum’s monthly “Meet Me at the DIA” program.

The program, a 90-minute tour that brings elderly patients with dementia to the museum to engage in a series of intimate dialogues, is one of the many nationwide efforts to bridge the gap between memory loss and creative expression.

First spearheaded by the Museum of Modern Art in 2006, the University of Michigan Museum of Art kickstarted its own program, “Meet Me at UMMA,” in 2009 after the docents attended a workshop funded by the MoMA Alzheimer’s Project. The DIA followed suit just a few months ago.

In a 2006 study commissioned by George Washington University’s center on Aging, Health & Humanities, it was found that elderly individuals exposed to creative interventions had a higher rating of physical health. They went to the doctor less often and relied on their medications less. They reported fewer incidences of falls.

“When I was visiting MoMA, two men were like this:” UMMA docent Marlene Ross said as she mimicked a patient with catatonia. Her head droops rigidly, her long silver hair obscuring her eyes.

“I thought, ‘Well, not going to get much there.’ But as soon as they got in front of a piece of artwork, whoooooooh.”

Ross picks her head up and comes to life, eyes brightening. A smile rushes across her face.

“Talked, interacted, made appropriate and insightful comments. If you had seen this man ten minutes before, you would have thought, ‘There’s nothing there.’ ”

For a long time, a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease tolled like a death knell.

Under a PET scanner, neurofibrillary plaques and tangles knot the surface of the Alzheimer’s brain. These plaques and tangles work their way across the infoldings of the nervous system, slashing away vital connections – the ability to coordinate muscle movement, verbalize words or recognize a face.

But what scientists have come to realize is that the disease doesn’t harm all parts of the brain. Balance, sensory pathways and vision stay largely intact. Their memories might be altered, but patients can still live in the present.

“You don’t need to have a memory to have a visual response to something … exciting or beautiful or disturbing,” Ross said.

And the warehouses used for storing long-term memory are spared until late in the disease’s progression. Dr. Cathleen Connell, a School of Public Health professor, said this might be the reason why music and art therapy are beneficial to people with Alzheimer’s — it may trigger distant memories and help connect a present experience with something from the past.

“There’s a feeling of ‘This is a good place,’ ” UMMA docent Gretta Spier said. “They may not remember the specific tour, but there’s a positive feeling about being here.”

Since the original program’s inception in 2006, representatives from the MoMA Alzheimer’s Project have been traveling the country inspiring museums to continue its mission.

This is how “Meet Me at UMMA” got its start. But it’s also evolved from there. UMMA’s dementia program has expanded beyond MoMA’s initial notion of a discussion-based tour into something more imaginative.

“I don’t even know how we came up with this, but we thought it would be really good idea to engage as much of the senses as we can,” Ross said.

The visitors – two groups from the residential community Huron Woods and the University Health System’s Turner Geriatric Silver Club – throw multicolored fabrics on the floor, uncork Indian spices and sing along (“lustily,” Spier says) to big band music. Behind a wall encrusted with malachite-colored tesserae, docent Susan Schreiber emerges as Mrs. Louisine Havemeyer, mistress of the house, regaling the audience with fabulous tales of her husband, the sugar baron.

“If (MoMA) saw us, they’d probably have a fit,” Ross said.

And the museum setting offers more than just a place to observe magnificent works of art; it also offers inspiration to create them.

In one instance, Ross dressed up as Martha Washington, encouraging the visitors to draw a portrait of themselves on a cut-out oval. On the sides, the visitors wrote characteristics of themselves: mom, happy, beautiful, white hair, cool hat. When the visitors put the oval to the mirror, they found a reflection of themselves gazing back.

Art & Design Prof. Anne Mondro, who herself turned to artmaking after a speech impediment made it difficult to verbalize the emotions she felt, praised artmaking as an excellent vehicle for patients to express themselves and take control of a situation.

“Anyone who’s a patient in the hospital loses their ability to have control over what happens to them,” she said. “They don’t get to decide as much because they have to follow what the nurses have to say, or they have to follow these tests today.”

But in creative endeavors, the patients have independence, she said. They can choose what colors and brushes they want to use. They can use their hands and muscles. The art begins to call on physical sensations, serving as a vehicle to tap into a nonverbal, emotional place in a person.

According to George Washington University Prof. Elizabeth Warson, who specializes in the role of art in American Indian cancer patients, visual and kinesthetic creative activity serves as excellent machinery for storytelling. A search for a story through art validates the artmaker as the author and reestablishes his or her sense of personhood.

The capacity for the creative arts to reawaken the imagination nullifies the classic stereotype of dementia patients as empty shells.

“You can’t say, ‘This is the way Alzheimer’s patients are,’ ” Ross said. “A sense of humor is still there, a joy of life, an appreciation of the arts and the senses and so on. It’s all there.”


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