Art and mu­sic as de­men­tia ther­apy

Nasher mu­seum uses both to help un­lock mem­o­ries

The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY TRENT BROWN [email protected]­sob­

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.


“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.


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.”


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.”


Harold Bost about ‘Re­flec­tions’ at Nasher Mu­seum of Art at Duke Univer­sity

CASEY TOTH [email protected]­sob­

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.

CASEY TOTH [email protected]­sob­

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.

CASEY TOTH [email protected]­sob­

A pa­tient and a care­giver hold hands dur­ing a meet­ing of the sup­port group Re­flec­tions, which meets at the Nasher Mu­seum of Art.

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