Engaging dementia patients through art
Twice a month, tucked away in tranquil galleries less frequented by tourists, older adults gather to discuss paintings and sculpture at the National Gallery of Art. As their laughter reverberates throughout the halls, the individuals with memory loss flex their visual processing and verbal skills.
The Just Us program at the National Gallery of Art (NGA) hosts a small group of individuals with early stages of dementia together with their caregivers for a guided tour through both the West and the East Gallery buildings on the first and third Monday of every month.
Each session is led by an NGA educator, who guides the groups through visual analysis of two to three paintings centered around a genre or theme.
“Even in the early stages of dementia, the world becomes a very difficult place to be,” said Diana Blackwelder, a retired engineer who was diagnosed with early dementia and is a regular participant in the Just Us program.
“Getting a diagnosis can be hard and depressing, and sometimes people react by shutting themselves inside,” Blackwelder said. “But Just Us forces people to get out and socialize and exercise their memory…When I come here, it’s rejuvenating.”
While similar programs exist at the Kreeger Museum and The Phillips Collection, Just Us is the first of its kind among the Smithsonian Institutions along the National Mall.
In Washington, D.C., nearly 8,900 people have Alzheimer’s disease, and many more live with a different form of dementia. They often have a hard time remembering vocabulary, focusing on a task when there is extraneous noise or crowds of people, and visually processing information.
In collaboration with Carolyn Halpin-Healy from the New York nonprofit Arts & Minds, Lorena Bradford, head of accessible programs at the National Gallery, designed Just Us with proven techniques to improve the emotional wellbeing and quality of life of those with dementia.
“[The program] brings in new audiences who haven’t, historically speaking, been out in the public as much,” Bradford said. “I thought it was important that we become a leader for that demographic here in D.C.”
Private, focused tours
The goal of each 90-minute session is to eliminate outside distraction and focus on analyzing the art, which strengthens verbal fluency and episodic memory in dementia patients, according to a 2012 study. Bradford intentionally picks two or three works of art that are in less-busy galleries, so that participants can access the pieces in front of them with relative ease.
Bradford connects the art to a broader genre, like American landscape or political portraiture, and she has not yet repeated a theme. Beyond the classics, past themes have also included lighthearted witticisms, like “Men in Black,” which focused on paintings of men dressed in dark colors. “I’m not too precious about [the themes],” Bradford said.
Before each session, participants — who register online beforehand — filter into a meeting room on the second floor, where they have the chance to socialize. The group of 15 to 20 people is then split into two smaller groups, led by Bradford and another rotating educator from the museum’s education department.
The smaller group sizes allow participants to engage with each other, too, and feel comfortable enough to have a conversation about the paintings and sculpture.
When each group arrives in their selected gallery, chairs are already set up in front of the painting and the participants file in. Once everyone is settled, Bradford starts her session with a meditative breath, directing everyone to let background noise pass over them without paying it too much mind.
Then, she looks at the painting. “What’s something that draws your attention?” she asks the group. “Where does your eye go after that — does it wander around?”
The session is not a lecture but a guided discussion of the group’s visual analysis. As the participants observe the art, they are encouraged to call out opinions and ask questions. They discuss the colors or the figures in the painting.
“My favorite thing about the program is that it forces us to be in the moment,” Bradford said. “When you’re an educator at the National Gallery of Art, you want to make sure that you have all the information about a work of art, that the furniture is set up in the right way.
“But when you’re sitting in front of a work of art, our only obligation is to the participants. It’s incredibly liberating.”
Bradford will occasionally call on more quiet members of the group to make sure that everyone has a chance to participate, but she asks open-ended questions, always aware of the participant’s comfort level. If the art does not immediately spark discussion, she breaks the group off into pairs to talk among themselves.
“We let them guide the conversation,” she explained. “I’ve learned with this group to focus more deeply on fewer pieces.”
In addition to potentially aiding short term memory and verbal skills, the Just Us program engenders a palpable sense of community among the participants and the staff.
“Many of them get to know each other inside the programs,” Bradford said. “They’re wonderful. They really become like family to us.”