Art, Creativity, and Living with Dementia
The following is participant Marion Power's reflections on Art, Creativity, and Living with Dementia, a one-day conference presented by the Frye Art Museum on November 16, 2010. Visit here:now for information on the Frye's innovative program that makes art accessible to people with dementia.
“The key issue we collectively face is how one lives a life of worth and purpose,” said Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Director of the Frye Art Museum. In that spirit, the Frye is providing programs and exhibitions that do just that: help us, and our communities, to live a life of worth and purpose.
In particular, the conference Art, Creativity, and Living with Dementia—sponsored by the Frye Foundation and in partnership with Elderwise and the Alzheimer’s Association – Western and Central Washington State Chapter—affirmed that viewing, discussing, and creating art can enhance the lives of those with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. The Frye was inspired in this endeavor by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) which developed one of the nation’s first museum programs specifically for people with Alzheimer’s disease and their care partners. Participants in the Frye’s conference included educators with arts and cultural organizations, professionals serving people with dementia, and those caring for family members with dementia.
The conference opened with a heartfelt and convincing line of reasoning from Dr. Janelle Taylor, Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington. She proposed a new perspective for how our culture might view dementia. Her reasoning emphasized inquiry into the act of recognition, what recognition means for people living with dementia. Taylor, whose mother has Alzheimer’s, noticed that everyone kept asking, “Does she recognize you?” Taylor responds by saying the question really is, or should be, “Do you, do we, recognize her? Do we grant her recognition?” In other words, is a person’s ability to remember the essential criteria for which our culture grants recognition and care? Taylor went on to say that it’s only as members of communities that any of us can hope to transcend the limitations of forgetfulness and doubt. (To read Dr. Taylor’s original essay on which this talk was based, go to https://depts.washington.edu/anthweb/people/faculty/articles/MAQ_recognition.pdf.)
The second presentation was a panel discussion providing perspectives on living with memory loss, moderated by Linda Whiteside, Director of Community Support and Volunteer Recruitment for the Western and Central Chapters of the Washington Alzheimer’s Association. The panel included four members: a woman who once was a nurse with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and now has early-onset Alzheimer’s, her son who is her care partner, a woman who was an elementary school teacher and now has Lewy body dementia, and her sister who is her care partner. Whiteside asked how they first became aware of their impending dementia and how the disease has affected their family relationships. The panel members were candid and genuine in their answers, winning recognition for courage and openness in sharing their personal stories.
Following the panel, Anne Basting, Director for the Center on Age and Community and Associate Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Peck School of the Arts, University of Wisconsin, talked to us via Skype from Milwaukee. She, like Taylor, is shaping a new vision of how we think about and care for people with memory loss. Welcome to a new world of aging and creativity! Her expansive vision focuses on creative engagement with the arts; an engagement that brings better overall health, fewer visits to the doctor, less falls, less loneliness, and a sense of purpose. It is a collaborative creating and learning process, not for but with—enabling those with dementia. She invites and brings together cultural groups, museums, and artists-in-residence to lead creative art experiences for elders.
The morning session ended with a discussion by Amir Parsa, Director, The MoMA’s Alzheimer’s Project, and Laurel Humble, Assistant Educator, The MoMA Alzheimer’s Project. They shared the details of Meet Me at MoMA, the museum’s arts engagement program for people with dementia and their care partners. Parsa and Humble discussed their inquiry-based tour style, the thematic exploration of paintings, and the “scaffolding” for a tour discussion. Like Basting, they expound the positive aspects of an arts engagement program, such as participation in a meaningful activity, opportunity for personal growth, and a means to make connection between one’s individual experience and a larger world.
Following lunch, the participants broke into smaller groups and attended three practicums for arts engagement. Amir Parsa and Laurel Humble lead the group on a gallery tour, they addressed artwork selection, relevant themes, preparation of appropriate questions, and methods for sharing art historical information. Holly Hughes, editor of anthology Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer’s Disease, offered an interactive session. She discussed the benefits of creative writing for the care partner, led a short writing exercise, and talked about resources for writing and journaling. Sandy Sabersky, Executive Director of Elderwise, and Tamara Keefe, Director of the Adult Day Center at Elderwise, explained the underlying philosophy of Elderwise, the Seattle-based nonprofit known for its approach of integrating cultural enrichment with the experience of aging. Keefe demonstrated their art-making curriculum and shared art created by seniors in the program.
The day ended with a warm reception for presenters and participants in the Frye Café. We left the Museum with a broader understanding of the value of art, and of the enrichment that an arts engagement program can bring to those with dementia and their care partners. We feel enriched by this exploration and eager to engage in a process of helping ourselves and our communities to live lives of worth and purpose.
The Frye is expanding outreach with the launch of here:now, an arts engagement program that will serve the growing community of those living with dementia.
Marion Power is a nurse at Seattle Children’s Hospital. She has been a Frye gallery guide since 2006 with a special interest in the Museum’s arts engagement program for those living with dementia.
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