Museum programs for Alzheimer's patients show the power of art as therapy


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One woman told docent Kathe Patrinos she didn't like the painting Ms. Patrinos was leading a discussion about during a tour of the Carnegie Museum of Art by a special group from a senior care facility. The visitor said it was too confusing, and when the docent asked why, she was thrilled to get a response.

Another time, an adult day-care patient from the same group, from Presbyterian SeniorCare's Woodside Place, Oakmont, was so taken by a piece of religious art he had seen that he couldn't stop talking about it at home that night.

"That was my first experience that this was so powerful," said Woodside art therapist Kara Berringer, who first approached the Carnegie about doing the tours.

"This" is the apparent benefits of "In the Moment," a 21/2-year-old, monthly tour program for Woodside patients with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.

The program, modeled on programs on art for people with dementia at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, has been so successful that the Carnegie is expanding it. This past fall, it started doing tours several times a month with residents from Sunrise Senior Living in Upper St. Clair, and docent program coordinator Mary Ann Perkins also is talking to other groups about doing the same thing with them.

In addition, the Carnegie is going to extend "In the Moment" to individuals and their family member or caregiver beginning in April. Those twosomes will be combined into groups of 12 -- just as they are in MoMA's highly successful "Meet Me at the MoMA" program, which attracts 100 persons a month.

The cost for both Carnegie tours is $10 per twosome, so if a group of six patients and six caregivers or family members comes from a facility or social organization the cost would be $60. Standard admission for seniors is $12.

It's a small price for a big payback.

"Art appreciation and making art hold immense potential to impact quality of life," said Jennifer Lingler, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh who also works as director of education and information core of the Alzheimer Disease Research Center within the medical school's department of psychiatry. Dr. Lingler spoke at a recent workshop the Carnegie held for docents who wanted to train in the expanded program and for the public.

Pitt's center has partnered with the Andy Warhol Museum for smaller programs of art for persons with dementia that have included an artist-in-residence, tours with discussions, and art-making.

The opportunities Dr. Lingler spoke of are numerous, said Amir Parsa, director of MoMA's Alzheimer's Project, a MetLife Foundation-funded program by which the museum is spreading its expertise and encouraging similar programs for patients with Alzheimer's to museums nationally and internationally.

Mr. Parsa, who serves as a lecturer and educator at MoMA as well, also spoke at the Carnegie workshop and during a subsequent interview. He enumerated the specific benefits of both tours and the art-making projects for small groups of patients that MoMA also sponsors. The programs were evaluated by the New York University School of Medicine.

Effects on participants in general, the NYU med school study showed, included caregivers reporting fewer problems during the week following their visit; both caregivers and patients reporting elevated mood; caregivers reporting an increase in social support; and patients reporting elevated self-esteem.

"It's a beautiful experience," said Ms. Perkins. "The caregiver enjoys the art with the loved one. They're outside the care facility ... [the caregivers] are creating a memory of their loved one."

Ms. Berringer said, "I see them making connections with other people. They sit up a little taller. They talk a little louder. I really think their behavior changes when they leave [Woodside] and go out in the community. It happens on other trips, too, but especially the museum.

"Kathe meets them at the door: 'Hey, Bob,' and he says, 'Hey, what are you selling today?' That's what's so different.

"And I also think they make a connection with the artwork. They see part of their life in the artwork. It's a metaphor for them. [They might] comment on past professions, how they lived."

Ms. Patrinos and Mr. Parsa both have experienced patients finding connections in art to their past lives.

Ms. Patrinos was doing a tour on the theme "Hats Off to Art," discussing works that had people wearing hats in them.

She had taken the group to a work by Mary Cassatt showing two women, one seated and wearing a hat and the other standing, without a hat.

"This woman had not said a word [to that point] and we already had seen three or four paintings and all of a sudden she started talking.

"I was floored. She was talking in sentences. Three or four words," Ms. Patrinos said. "After the fact, I found out from Woodside ... she used to be a buyer for Gimbels, so talking about clothes and hats triggered something and had great interest for her."

Mr. Parsa had taken a group to see Marc Chagall's "I and the Village."

"The husband [who was the patient] started, on seeing that, talking about where his mother was buried and talked about the experience, and the wife had never heard that," Mr. Parsa said. "It's a catalyst for conversation that may not occur in other circumstances."

According to Mr. Parsa's workshop presentation, the patients' engagement with art allows:

• An opportunity for personal growth.

• An exchange of ideas without relying on short-term memory.

• Opportunity to access long-term memories.

• New insight into others' ideas and interests.

• A means to make connections between individual experience and the world at large.

• A social setting that allows connection to one's peers.

• A respite, both physically and psychologically.

The tours last between one and 11/2 hours, with the groups looking at four or five works of art for an average of 15 to 20 minutes each.

The discussions are inquiry-based not lecture-centered, and the questions are not based on presumption of prior art knowledge like "Who knows who Picasso is?" Rather, Mr. Parsa demonstrated when he led the prospective docents on a tour of the Carnegie, they are questions that can engage everyone, like "What do you see?" or "What do you think of the colors the artist has used?"

The conversation also is "scaffolded," Mr. Parsa said, which means that the conversation goes through several layers to make it more fruitful. A key component is that it allows connection with artworks and interpretations by participants while they are at ease and feel their participation is legitimate.

Care is taken to look the patients in the eyes and not to direct the conversations on two levels, one with caregivers and one with patients. Everyone in the group is treated as equal.

At some point during the tour, the docent does what is known as a "turn and talk," in which he or she has the group turn and break into subgroups to address certain topics. As an example during the docents' workshop, he told them to imagine who they would put into a painting they were looking at and at what site it would be.

"Then people, shyer people, those who can't project as much [can be encouraged to talk]," Mr. Parsa said. "They don't have to move, they just turn their chairs. It's a cool, social thing. ...

"What's fascinating about that is sometimes they follow directions; sometimes they don't. [But] there's a lot of sharing, laughter."

The lasting effects of these art tours is perhaps best exemplified by one of Ms. Patrinos' experiences with a patient from Woodside.

"I hadn't done the tour the month before," she said. "As he was coming in in his wheelchair, he said, 'I was here last time and you weren't.' We all stood for a moment with our mouths open because it was two months since he'd seen me. I was floored and so were the caretakers from Woodside. It was exciting to know from the consistency of the building he remembered something. That was the first 'aha!' moment for me."

For more information or to register by individual or group for "In the Moment" tours call 412-622-3289.


Pohla Smith: psmith@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1228. First Published December 27, 2010 5:00 AM


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