Enabling People with Dementia through Creative Engagement with Art

Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to attend a talk at the Museum of Modern Art led by Richard Taylor, Ph.D., author of Alzheimer’s from the Inside Out. Richard is a former psychologist who has been living with the diagnosis of dementia for the past eleven years and he was able to shed light on the very important, and all too often overlooked, perspective on programming for people with dementia – that of a program participant.

His presentation, “Enabling People with Dementia through Creative Engagement with Art” provided an opportunity to gain insight into his perspective and was altogether affirming of Mindful Connections, our free tour program for people with dementia and their caregivers. He was funny, candid, and engaging and he provided suggestions to further enrich the gallery experience we currently provide.

One of the aspects of Richard’s discourse that resonated with me the most, was the opportunity our program provides for our visitors with Dementia AND their caregivers to be amongst, as Richard puts it, “kindred spirits” and “like minds.” He stressed that, while participants may no longer be able to express themselves as before, the desire for stimulation, both emotional and intellectual, as well as intimacy and contact never leaves. Mindful Connections enables participants to be challenged with new and unusual stimulus, allows them to freely express and be affirmed of their opinions, communicate with others, and meet multiple upper-level needs such as self-actualization, self-esteem, belonging, and safety.

Richard reminded us that the need for purpose is inherent in all individuals, and a trip to the museum provides a purposeful experience. He shared an anecdote about a man who rarely got dressed in “going-out” clothes more frequent than once a month. His wife had laid out his clothing prior to the museum visit, to which the husband responded, “I’m not going to wear that!” The wife was shocked and asked “Why?” And the husband said it wasn’t “dressy enough.” Key here is the fact that this opportunity provides an experience that reinforces self-worth and purpose worth getting dressed, and more importantly dressed-up for.

Some tips that Richard provided include: “Re-enable before you enable.” He suggests the allowance of time before the program commences for the participants to become reacquainted with staff and one another to gain confidence and comfort which often diminishes with social isolation. He recommends, prior to content examination, to spend time reminiscing to get their attention and then bring them into today and impart new information.  The artwork can be used as a tool to build relationships and self-assurance. He stresses the importance of staying flexible throughout the tour program, highlighting that the process (acts of engagement and reminiscing) of the experience is more important than the destination (new content acquisition).

The Rubin Museum recently featured a documentary entitled Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory that captures the ways in which music, much like art, can reinvigorate and engage individuals with Alzheimer’s and other mental disabilities. To register for our monthly Mindful Connections series, please click here.  To read more about Richard Taylor, Ph. D. and his quest to share his story, please visit his website: http://www.richardtaylorphd.com/

-Lyndsey Anderson

Richard Taylor, Ph. D.

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