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In Museums, Those With Alzheimer’s Find Themselves Again

Art revives memories, and sparks flashes of personality, humor, and perception.

There are currently 5 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease, and that number is expected to grow as the population ages. Many of these men and women, rich or poor, loved or abandoned, sit in their own blank world all day. Loved ones give up—why should I go see her, she doesn’t even recognize me?—and wait for a merciful end.

Even when told of the fresh approach to Alzheimer’s through art, caregivers can be skeptical.

“Oh, she couldn’t get to a museum,” says one loving son of his 96-year-old mother, pointing out her ravaged hip joints and anxiety about change. “What would be the point? She never even understands what’s happening on television.”

Awakened memories, new interactions

Zeisel has another question: “What’s the point,” he says, “of medicine keeping us alive longer if we don’t have a life worth living?” In his latest book, I’m Still Here, Zeisel maintains that the Alzheimer’s mind is a working, even creative mind. The average person, he says, has 100 billion active brain cells. A person with Alzheimer’s has 90 billion, which shows there is still a mind at work if only we can discover ways to reach it. For Zeisel, the way into the mind is through the emotions.

“Art touches and engages the brain in a more profound way than other activities,” Zeisel writes.

Although scientific research is in its infancy, decades of anecdotal evidence suggest that arts such as music and painting provide detours around dysfunctional areas of the brain.

A September article in the Lancet Neurology, a British medical journal, notes the establishment of a new institute in London—the International Centre for Research in Art Therapies at Imperial College—to “bring arts-based therapies in from the scientific cold” by conducting rigorous scientific studies.

People with Alzheimer’s are very good at expressing what they think and feel at the moment, instead of editing themselves according to others’ opinions. So they are natural artists and make a natural audience for works of art as diverse as paintings, drama and poetry, Zeisel says.
Zeisel emphasizes that any individual can provide such tours, but urges careful preparation. [See “ARTZ Tours.”]

The ARTZ tours—on days when the museums are closed to the public—are not casual visits. They are carefully orchestrated ahead of time so that participants will be at ease. ARTZ leaders study galleries and other locations for access, configuration and size. Tour leaders are trained to understand the unique skills and needs of people with dementia. They do not quiz those with Alzheimer’s about the name of the art or the artist, or ask them to compare one work with another. Questions are specific. What do you see? Why is the woman in the field?

Even the works of art are vetted ahead of time—by people with Alzheimer’s. At the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, for example, ARTZ experts selected 30 paintings they thought might be suitable and showed them to potential visitors. Based on the visitors’ reactions, the experts concluded that 10 paintings weren’t understood at all, 10 were well understood and the remaining 10 fell somewhere in the middle. After this research, ARTZ experts recommended seven of the works, including two from the middle group but none from the not-understood-at-all works.

One special painting

The most compelling painting at MOMA for the Alzheimer’s viewers? The well-loved Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth, which shows a lone woman in a field with a house in the distance. Zeisel says they immediately see that there is something special about the house. They see the woman in the field longs for the house. “She wants to get to the house. So do I,” one viewer said.

Among the MOMA paintings that confounded or did not at all engage—the huge colorful canvas Broadway Boogie Woogie by Piet Mondrian. Most of the people with Alzheimer’s looked at its pattern of horizontal and vertical lines and asked questions like: “Why would someone hang a tablecloth on the wall?”

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