Art and Alzheimer’s at UVa.

"The Lobby" (1973), by Willard Franklin Midgette, copyright Estate of Willard Midgette

By Carolyn Mooney

Art engages the senses and makes few demands. It is easily appreciated for its own sake. It humanizes.

That helps explain why more art museums are developing programs for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and memory loss. The University of Virginia Art Museum recently began offering its “Eyes on Art” program, a collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Association’s Central and Western Virginia Chapter. Docents trained to deal with Alzheimer’s patients lead them on small-group tours when the museum is closed to the public. The tours, which also include family members and care givers, typically focus on three paintings that encourage discussion and self-expression: “The Lobby” by Willard Franklin Midgette (shown here); “Jerdon’s Courser,” a Frank Stella abstract; and “Our Good Earth,” a World War II poster by John Steuart Curry.

“There’s something very universal about their responses,” says Caroline Even, who coordinates arts projects for the association. “People identify so immediately with images and colors and textures and movement, and they can communicate about those things even if other faculties have left them.

“I think that’s a very validating experience.”

Virginia’s initiative borrows from a well-established program for Alzheimer’s patients run by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. MoMA recently expanded the program to include training for arts educators at other museums, including the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond, Va. MoMA’s Web site offers resources for museums that want to start such programs, along with testimonials about their value. Art provides people who suffer from dementia with badly needed outlets for self-expression, but also offers them dignity, socialization, and an opportunity to find meaning in their lives, according to the testimonials.

Works of art often trigger long-term memories for people with short-term memory loss, says Sharon Celsor-Hughes, the docent coordinator for the University of Virginia’s museum. “You may have someone who is not willing to talk at first, but by the time they leave, if they’ve entered into the conversation, we’ve done something. One man wasn’t comfortable talking, but when we got to the Curry poster he became engaged because he had served in the war.”

Pam Wells, a family friend and caregiver for Sam Hagley, a Palmyra, Va. man who suffers from frontotemporal dementia, was amazed at how animated he became during a recent visit to the museum. A former chemical engineer and accountant, Hagley had never shown much interest in art before he developed the condition, which makes it difficult to recall details of recent events and to make connections. Lately he has been sketching flowers and birds, with encouragement from various community art programs.

When he saw “The Lobby,” a huge mural that depicts the bustling lobby of an office building, “he was totally intrigued,” Wells says. “He could look at each one of the figures and figure out what they were going to do.”

“It’s exactly what people with dementia need,” she says. “It’s immediate, it’s sensory, and you’re not going to get a test.”

Since developing dementia, Hagley himself says, “I’ve almost become artistic. My abilities and disabilities have been banging around in the same can, so to speak.”

Art—whether looking at it or producing it—is simply a relaxing experience, he says. “I don’t have to worry about making myself known, or being judged.”

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