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In Museums, Those With Alzheimer’s Find Themselves Again

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

Mary had just turned 100 years old and was in the late mid-stage of Alzheimer’s. She and four others with the disease were visiting the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., as part of a program called ARTZ, or Artists for Alzheimer’s.

Mary was mute and frail in her wheelchair as she sat gazing at a 23-foot-long scale model of the passenger liner Queen Elizabeth I. The ship, a luxury liner built in the late 1930s, ferried the rich and well heeled from one continent to another. After 15 minutes or so, Mary surprised everybody by speaking up. Gesturing toward the ship, she said, “There were a lot of soldiers involved, and there was a war.”

Leaders of the tour were flummoxed by Mary’s observation. Then she told them, and they later confirmed, that during World War II passenger liners like the elegant Queen Elizabeth were transformed into troop ships.

Connecting art to personal stories

Mary had, in fact, used her damaged brain in ways that thrilled John Zeisel, one of the founders of the ARTZ program and a specialist in Alzheimer’s. She’d made a connection between the art object and her own history, awakened a personal memory and in a way announced that there was still a unique person inside her diminished body.

Zeisel, a sociologist who has taught at Harvard and Yale universities, has designed Hearthstone Alzheimer Care residences in New York and the Boston area—homes that seek new, creative ways to reach those with the disease. In 2002, Zeisel and Sean Caulfield, an artist, began organizing the ARTZ program in New York, with two purposes in mind. First, they wanted to find a way to engage Alzheimer’s patients and awaken whatever feelings and memories were still locked in their damaged brains. Second, they wanted to give artists, caregivers and the public a new way to think about and interact with the person with that disease.

Museum tours

Two years later, ARTZ took its first group of men and women with Alzheimer’s on a special tour of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Today, ARTZ volunteers lead carefully structured visits to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Louvre in Paris, the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Mass., and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra—as well as a number of smaller museums in the northeastern United States. And the list is growing.

Zeisel says his dream is to have cultural institutions in every major city open their doors and develop programs for people with Alzheimer’s.
Visiting these elegant sites, looking at paintings, sculptures and artifacts carefully chosen to rekindle memories and emotions can be an extraordinary experience for people with Alzheimer’s—and for those who love them. The visits are special social occasions, lively outings for men and women who live with this disease.

How art engages people with Alzheimer’s

Zeisel says that while these men and women are losing the ability to link complex thoughts and to think clearly and logically, they rely more and more on reading, understanding and communicating through emotions. One reason—their “hard-wired” abilities still work, he explains. They still have the ability to read facial expressions such as sadness, happiness, fear, disgust, suspicion, disdain and love. And these skills, learned very early in life, can short-circuit logic, even thought, to reach and retrieve long-buried memories. Indeed, observing or making art seems to enhance and take advantage of these skills.

“Alzheimer’s doesn’t take away memory,” Zeisel says. “The part of the brain that’s damaged is the part that gives a person access to that memory. But emotions can revive old memories.”

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