Art & Alzheimer’s – How art can help individuals with dementia

By Peggy Jurcisin

Mary Jane Knecht, Manager, Creative Aging Programs has been with the Frye Art Museum for over eleven years. For the past five years Knecht has been involved with the here:now arts engagement program for individuals living with dementia.

This program enables persons living with dementia and their care partners to view, discuss and create art. The program was developed in partnership with Elderwise and the Alzheimer’s Association Western and Central Washington Chapter.Art & Dementia

Knecht expresses her enthusiasm by stating, “We were excited to participate in a study with Dr. Burnside who is looking at the impact of here:now while focusing on the quality of life of the participants. We don’t talk about dementia, we don’t focus on the challenges, we’re not focusing on the loss. We’re really focusing on the joy of being together.”

Dr. Lee Burnside, M.D., M.B.A, Geriatrician, University of Washington asserts, “To be able to express oneself and share through an artistic process, you are able to put those limitations aside for a bit. Art is a way to side-step those limitations and cognitive decline so we can be closer and share things. We have the artistic community coming together with the medical community in some sense and that is very, very important.”

Photo by Katherine Lamar
Photo by Katherine Lamar

here:now was developed from a six-month pilot program launched in fall 2010 and has evolved into two current offerings: a gallery discussion tour offered twice a month and a six-session art-making class and gallery tour. The free programs are designed for individuals living with young-onset or early to mid-stage dementia and their care partners. The gallery tour is facilitated by specially trained museum educators.

The group looks at and discusses three or four works of art in the Frye galleries. The participants are encouraged to honor the moment and enjoy the art itself while sharing a conversation without relying on short-term memory or recall of historical information. This experience offers a safe, supportive environment enabling the participants and care partners to appreciate the museum and utilize the art as an outlet.

The Frye Art Museum offers another popular program for those living with dementia and their care partners. This program includes a six-session, once weekly, two-hour class taught by a museum educator and Elderwise teaching artist. The participants first discuss works of art in the galleries then settle into the Frye art studio to create their own art. Their artwork may be inspired by the participants’ recollection of the art they viewed in the gallery or by their own imagination and creativity.

Photo by Jill Hardy
Photo by Jill Hardy

The first session often begins by introducing watercolor painting. The teaching artist introduces the materials and demonstrates painting, then encourages participants to create their own work. The following weeks may include experimentation with other art mediums including collage, print making, clay and others.  A short social time and snack concludes each session providing participants the opportunity to socialize in an unstructured and stress free setting. The here:now class is incredibly popular. It is a free program, however space is limited and advanced registration is required.

here:now participant Mary Lou Brown shares her enthusiasm, “After we’ve been to the gallery with the group and heading back out to the studio we’re on an incredible high. It’s just remarkable because it’s a moment of feeling totally normal… it’s kind of euphoric.”

Photo by Katherine Lamar
Photo by Katherine Lamar

A third program Frye Art Museum offers is an interactive film program called Meet Me at the Movies. This is a quarterly program which was originally designed for people living with memory loss however Meet Me at the Movies may be enjoyed by all adults. Movie clips from both classic and contemporary films are screened and interspersed with facilitated discussion. Meet Me at the Movies is presented by the Frye in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Western and Central Washington Chapter and University of Washington’s School of Nursing.

The Frye Museum is currently piloting a new outreach program in residential care communities and in private homes to serve individuals as their disease progresses.

The arts engagement programs that the Frye Art Museum, offered in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association Western and Central Washington Chapter, Elderwise, and the University Of Washington School Of Nursing, provide people living with dementia and their care partners with free and unique opportunities to participate in meaningful activities in a relaxed, supportive environment. Undoubtedly the advantages these programs offer will lead to an increase in similar opportunities.

Learn more at the Frye website and register for these popular series early.

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