Art and music as dementia therapy
Nasher museum uses both to help unlock memories
The visitors sit in folding chairs in front of a huge, ornately framed portrait of a man holding a gold staff against a blue and floral background.
Maggie Griffin stands beside the artwork, “St. John the Baptist II” by Kehinde Wiley — the artist best known for painting President Barack Obama’s official portrait.
“So I’m going to let you make some comments on what you’re noticing,” she says. “What stands out when you see this particular piece?”
“He’s suspended in the air,” says one man.
“His face is so pensive, not sad, but watchful,” says a woman in the back.
Griffin smiles and encourages each response with a genuine excitement.
The program that has brought these 14 people — and another 12 that split off earlier — into the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University this chilly January day is called “Reflections.”
Eleven of the 26 people in the two groups have Alzheimer’s disease or another dementia-related illness. The others are their caretakers.
INTERACTIVE COMMUNITY PROGRAM
“Reflections” adds interactive sensory components to an art gallery tour to help stimulate the brains of people with Alzheimer’s, a specific disease that causes the loss of thinking skills and memory, and other forms of dementia.
Nearly 6 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease — or 1 in 10 people ages 65 or older.
Jessica Rhule, the Nasher’s education director, learned of the idea at a Museum of Modern Art conference in New York eight or nine years ago. Her grandfather was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“The stars aligned” in July 2014, Rhule said, when the museum hired a new director, Sarah Schroth, and Rhule found donors Stephanie Kahn and husband, Doug, both of whose fathers had Alzheimer’s. Soon afterward, the Duke Dementia Family Support Program jumped on board, bringing patients and caregivers to “Reflections” on the second Wednesday of every month.
In December, The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America gave the program a $5,000 grant. It now hosts six to eight tours for organized groups and is open to the public one day a month.
LEARN, SUPPORT EACH OTHER
The tours usually involve a group focusing on a few works of art while a tour guide asks them about it. The questions often begin at a surface level and lead into deeper questions about what memories the art triggers.
“It’s really given me a new perspective on art,” said Doug Taylor. “I love it.”
Marion Jervay, who comes with her husband, Kenton Cobb, said they already had a membership to the Nasher but called “Reflections” “a wonderful immersion.”
The program also fosters community.
“People come to our programs, initially having never met somebody else with dementia,” says Bobbi Matchar, director of the family support program. “But here through our programs, they get to be very open about their impairment and learn from each other and support each other.”
Harold Bost, who comes with his wife, Shirley, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, said it’s one of the most important parts of coming every month.
“It gives us an outing,” he explained. “And the more you can be with other people that have the same type of issues that you do, you find you’re not alone.”
MUSIC AS THERAPY
The recent tour’s focus, after the Kehinde Wiley painting, turned to music.
First, the group was given song lyrics from popular tracks like Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” or The Beatles’ “Yesterday” and was told to match the lyrics to a piece of art in the room.
Then the group looked at a large piece called “Cats and Dogs” in which three vinyl records circle each other — “Purple Rain” by Prince, “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses and “Rain” by The Beatles.
Rhule asked the visitors about their favorite albums and artists, and then if they could remember any specific memories about them.
“My sister gave me an album when I was 16,” said one woman.
The final part of the tour was the most interactive, changing sometimes between live music from Duke orchestra performers to a DJ.
Joseph Giampino, known as DJ SPCLGST [Special Guest], stood behind his DJ table as the visitors came up to watch him perform to songs spanning the 1950s to the past decade — scrubbing a record back and forth to create a scratch sound.
Giampino asked for requests, and Stephanie Kahn yelled out, “We want to dance!”
And as soon as “Good Golly Miss Molly” by Little Richard started to play, folks started tapping their feet and playing invisible pianos.
“They were swaying and they were tapping their hands and their feet to the music,” Bobbi Matchar said. “And these were people who were otherwise fairly blank during other parts of the program, but they really came alive with the music.”
Music is a well-studied form of therapy. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, music can reduce agitation and improve behavioral issues in the middle stages of the disease, and can even help people in the late stages recall memories and lyrics from their childhoods.
Other museums in the Triangle also have or are working on programs like “Reflections.” The N.C. Museum of Art has Traveling Trunks, which includes art reproductions and items one can see in the art, to engage people with dementia. It also has tours that focus on the sense of touch and an American Sign Language introduction to the museum.
UNC-Chapel Hill’s Ackland Art Museum is developing its own version of “Reflections.”
Carolyn Allmendinger, director of education and interpretation, said the museum has been in contact with Rhule and is partnering with Sue Coppola, an occupational therapy professor at UNC, and Charles House, which provides elder care in Chapel Hill.
“We’re very much inspired by and benefiting from our colleagues at Nasher,” she said.
As Giampino neared the end of his performance, and the tour’s end, he told the museum crowd that he DJs because of their reactions.
“It’s making you move, it’s making your feet stomp, it’s making your head bob and you feel it,” Giampino said. “That’s what music is and that’s what being a musician is. Making people enjoy and giving them something.”
IT GIVES US AN OUTING. AND THE MORE YOU CAN BE WITH OTHER PEOPLE THAT HAVE THE SAME TYPE OF ISSUES THAT YOU DO, YOU FIND YOU’RE NOT ALONE.
Harold Bost about ‘Reflections’ at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University
Maggie Griffin leads a group discussion about a piece of artwork on display at the Nasher Museum of Art with a monthly support group called Reflections.
Jessica Rhule leads a group discussion Jan. 8 about a piece of artwork on display at the Nasher Museum of Art with a support group designed for both patients and caregivers to engage with works of art together.
A patient and a caregiver hold hands during a meeting of the support group Reflections, which meets at the Nasher Museum of Art.