From a young age, I knew my grandparents loved the arts. I remember attending theater and orchestra performances with them in our small Florida town. I remember my grandfather enrolling in a world art and architecture course at the local community college. I remember my grandmother leading my fifth-grade class visit to the art museum as a docent. And I remember when my grandfather stopped remembering.
When my grandfather began showing signs of dementia, my grandmother took on the role of primary care partner. More and more, they felt they could not enjoy experiences they enjoyed together for decades. The orchestras, theaters, dance halls and art museums that brought them so much joy did not feel welcoming at a time when they needed to feel close to each other and also connect with the outside world.
This experience is by no means limited to my family. The dementia statistics are staggering. More than five million Americans live with Alzheimer’s disease. That number will triple by the year 2050.
At the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Reflections is a rare program for visitors with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. It’s not a typical gallery tour. Visitors connect with one another and have meaningful conversations because of the art they experience.
Art is a powerful tool for people with dementia because the art is right in front of them, right there in the moment. A successful conversation does not require remembering or calling up past knowledge. Instead, visitors simply relate to the art they see.
Everybody on the tour lives with dementia, so it’s a safe and nonjudgmental place for forgotten words, extended pauses, repeated thoughts. The experience revolves around the people. It’s unrushed, full of encouragement. The care partners and visitors with memory loss can relax and enjoy their time together.
Care partners are often amazed at the quality of the discussions that come out of a Reflections tour. Family members report that a visitor who is uncommunicative and withdrawn at home becomes talkative on a tour.
On one Nasher tour, Edwin, a visitor with dementia, looked at a seascape painting and shared memories of years spent sailing. He grew up on the water and was an expert sailor. Edwin confidently explained the how the boat in the painting would have been tossed about on swelling seas, crashing waves and churning water. His daughter listened to him, visibly proud of her father’s knowledge, and enjoyed the chance to witness him acting like himself again.
Many of our tours include playful, exploratory experiences of making art. Visitors can express themselves and even discover new interests. One care partner recognized her husband Harold’s joy in making art on a Reflections tour and later enrolled him in watercolor classes. He combined his love for birds with his new pursuit of painting; the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro exhibited his bird paintings, celebrating him with an opening reception.
Like art, music can connect people with their deepest memories, despite their dementia. Scientific research shows that music is an effective tool for working with people with memory loss. Music is part of many of the Reflections tours. Local musicians perform in the galleries and connect their songs directly to the theme of the tour, as well as the art on display. On these days, music draws other visitors – and museum staff! – into the gallery to dance or sing along.
I love the story of Charles. Charles took part in a Reflections tour during the museum’s Joan Miró exhibition. We brought in Raleigh-based flamenco guitar player Ed Stephenson to complement the Spanish art. When the group first saw the musician, Charles mentioned that he played drums as a young man. The musician had a drum with him and invited Charles to play. He accompanied the guitarist and, after the tour, Charles’s wife told us that she had not known about his earlier life as a musician; this was the
second marriage for both of them and Charles had never mentioned playing drums. It’s unexpected when art and music allow visitors to reveal more of themselves to those they love. Too often, we assume people with memory loss can’t grow.
The joy on these tours is palpable. The museum staff and visitors build real relationships. The Nasher offers a normalizing experience and a safe community at a time when people feel overlooked or diminished by their diagnoses.
As with my grandparents, a dementia diagnosis may quickly restrict a person’s independence and social circle. For both patients and care partners, the world seems to shrink as they shuttle between home and doctors’ offices. To counterbalance that isolation, museum visits allow people to remember things they used to love, or even explore a new environment. A shared lunch in the café furthers this feeling of community and allows care partners a chance to connect and support one another.
Museum spaces, and cultural institutions more broadly, need to serve our full community. My grandparents deserved this engagement, and the Nasher Museum believes yours do, too.
Reflections tours for individuals with early-stage dementia and a care partner are available on the fourth Tuesday of each month. Tours are 60 minutes long and start at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Tours for organized support groups and assisted living organizations are available on the third Tuesday of each month. Tours range from 60-90 minutes long and also start at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Reservations are required. To learn more, or register for a tour, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information about the Reflections program is available at here.