A docent helps group members as they make collages during one of their days out at the Nasher.
A docent helps group members as they make collages during one of their days out at the Nasher. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

A monthly program gives people coping with memory loss a day of friendship and stimulation.

By Rose Hoban

Stephanie Kahn stands in front of a painting splashed with primary colors and talks to about two dozen older adults sitting on folding chairs in a gallery of the Nasher Museum of Art on the Duke University campus.

“What do you see?” she asks the group.

“Butterflies,” comes one answer.

“The colors of a Volkswagen,” “Peter Max,” come other responses from the crowd.

“It looks like spin art,” says one woman.

“That’s right, spin art,” responds Kahn. “When you were young or your children were young, you’d put a piece of cardboard on something that rotated and then you’d squirt paint onto it.”

Some heads nod. Others don’t. One woman stands behind the seated crowd, holding onto her husband’s arm and shifting from one foot to another. She makes an almost-continuous moan.

Kahn continues, unfazed by the noise, talking about the color scheme in the painting and the butterflies affixed to it. She passes around a box with a butterfly specimen in it and asks for more impressions, what memories the painting evokes.

One of the group members makes a point about the Damien Hirst painting Beautiful Superheroes Painting (with Butterflies), while Stefanie Kahn looks on. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Memories. Those are key for this group, which consists of people with varying degrees of dementia and their caregivers. The art tour is part of a monthly program held at the Nasher to provide an enriching experience for those dementia patients, and usually a spouse.

“What this does is it gives them a chance to go to a normalizing setting,” said Lisa Gwyther, who runs the Duke Family Support Program, which focuses on the needs of people with dementia, Alzheimer’s and the people who care for them.

“They get to see friends and get a fresh perspective from the art and have an experience where everyone is right.”

A portal

One day each month, the Nasher staff, lead by Jessica Ruhle, welcomes the dementia patients for an interactive tour of the galleries at the museum. Some months, the group does a related art project, a chance for old hands to try something new.

On this particular afternoon, the group sits around a table, making collages with paper and materials that are all one color, but different shades, hues and textures.

“With the art making we wanted it to be appropriate without being juvenile,” Ruhle said. “Frankly, some of the activities we’ve had the most success with have been pretty sophisticated. We did some great screen printing in relation to a screen printing exhibition on display.”

Jessica Ruhle explains the day’s art project, which consists of making collages of the same color, in different shades and hues. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Every other month, the Nasher provides music that might be from the same era as the art. And for people with dementia, music is a portal into lost memories.

“One time, we had a drum set here and a man got up and sat down and played,” Kahn said. “His wife never knew that when he was young he knew how to play them.”

Kahn said sometimes people who normally can’t speak are able to sing along. And when she talks about the art, there are no wrong answers.

“When we ask about the art, we don’t say ‘Gee, do you remember?’ We’ve learned not to use certain questions. Instead, we ask, ‘What do you see?’”

But Kahn said the staff at the Nasher isn’t dumbing the material down. “Often I don’t know who’s got dementia. That’s the greatest thing I’ve learned.”

Meet me…

Creating a program like this was something Gwyther wanted to do for a while, inspired by Meet Me at MoMA, an original program for people with dementia created at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art.

That program was so successful at reducing depression, improving self esteem and reducing anxiety in the Alzheimer’s patients LINK and their partners that MoMA staff began to teach other museums around the country how to run similar programs.

The leadership at the Nasher provided Gwyther with an opportunity, and Ruhle, whose grandfather died as a result of dementia, jumped at the chance to lead the groups.

The program started nearly three years ago with members from a support group run by Gwyther’s colleague Bobbi Matchar for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. The original participants already knew one another from the group when they first walked into the galleries, reducing any awkwardness about speaking up.

A docent helps group members as they make collages during one of their days out at the Nasher. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Now it’s a chance to get out with friends and with people who know you and get a chance to talk to them,” she said. “It also gives the caregivers a fresh perspective on their relative.”

“Just about every single person with dementia that’s part of this group, they all have something to offer or share. It really stimulates conversation,” said Jane Gillette, one of the participants.

Then she turned to her husband, a retired meteorologist, and said, “Wouldn’t you say, Dale?”

Dale struggled for a moment. “Yup. Uh… the viewpoints are different. Uh… some folks are more scientific, others more imaginative. You can see that… really… in this thing.”

“Everybody’s contribution is valuable, and that’s what matters,” Jane said, smiling. “We love coming.”

Like normal

Unlike at the MOMA where programs take place on days when that museum is closed, the North Carolina groups meet on days when the Nasher is open and others are moving around the group.

Jane and Dale Gillette have been coming to the Nasher program since it started. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“[It’s] something that feels very day to day and is part of enjoying Durham and all it has to offer and not being an ‘other,’” Ruhle said.

She said the museum and one of its donors pitched in funds, so the program is free. Often, they can pay for a participant’s parking.

Beyond Gwyther’s original group, the Nasher now hosts groups from residential facilities around the Piedmont.

Ruhle has boned up on the research, attended workshops and now teaches people at other museums how to create and run similar programs. It’s touched a nerve for her.

“I think every museum and every cultural organization should be providing opportunities for all visitors,” she said, pointing out that right now the Nasher is unique in offering programming for dementia patients.

“It would be unheard of if museums in our area weren’t doing tours for thirdgrade classes and this shouldn’t be any different,” she said. “This should be in our theaters and museums and music venues. There’s no age at which people stop enjoying and appreciating our cultural opportunities.”

Learn more:

The Reflections: Alzheimer’s Program at the Nasher Museum of Art

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...