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Clark Art Institute Offers Program For People With Dementia And Their Caregivers

Facebook: The Clark

A new program at The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts is meant to engage people with dementia. The program that began today is also designed to serve as an outlet for caregivers.The “Meet Me At The Clark” program features guided tours for those suffering from dementia and their caregivers on a day when the galleries are closed. Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer is the museum’s director of adult, school and community programs.

“We will go into the galleries and spend some time looking at and talking about art and all the other things that looking at and talking about the art might bring up,” Tulgan Ostheimer said.  “It’s a very open-ended conversation based on ideas that come from the art itself.”

The groups of about a dozen people will spend an hour looking at four or five paintings. Tulgan Ostheimer says the tour is not as much about the art or the museum, but rather the experience of being together.

“The conversation often will stray into a memory or a shared experience,” she said. “We are not as careful to get right back to the visual experience because the whole purpose of this is to have an hour just being, being comfortable, away from the pressures that the typical person with dementia and caretaker relationship might be. It really just is a free open hour of exploring ideas, thoughts, listening to each other and enjoying each other’s company.”

The program is based on one that debuted at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2006. Tulgan Ostheimer says about 100 museums across the country offer similar programs, including The Hyde Art Museum and Historic House in Glens Falls. The Clark tested out a pilot program last year.

“Very often people who have dementia have memories that are much more intact than their cognitive functioning might suggest,” Tulgan Ostheimer said. “One of the roads to these memories or to opening up the memories for discussion are the senses. Very often you can get to sensations through your visual experience. So images can conjure up smells, sounds, emotional feelings and very often those trigger some very rich and interesting conversations that family members haven’t had together in a long time.”

Dementia is not a specific disease. It’s a term that describes a wide range of symptoms associated with the decline of memory or thinking skills. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60 to 80 percent of dementia cases, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, it’s anticipated nearly 14 million Americans will suffer from Alzheimer’s, about 100 million worldwide. Dr. Jay Ellis was the keynote speaker at a Memory Matters forum in May sponsored by Berkshire Area Health Education Center and Home Instead Senior Care. Ellis has spent 40 years reaching Alzheimer’s disease. While it’s often heard that keeping the brain active can prevent dementia, he says consistent evidence of what can prevent or cure the disease is years away.

“So it’s OK for people to use their brains,” Ellis said. “On the other hand they shouldn’t be living with the false hope that doing crossword puzzles and Sudoku is going to keep them from getting Alzheimer’s nor should they feel guilty if they don’t do those things.”

The Clark is holding three more sessions – January 5th, February 2nd and March 2nd. Tulgan Ostheimer says interpreting art creates a level playing field that might not exist in day-to-day life, at times offering glimpses of a relationship that once was.

“You might have a husband and wife debating about something jocularly in ways that they’re both in equal power positions, if you will,” Tulgan Ostheimer said. “One isn’t being cared for and the other taking care of; instead it’s a real conversation.”

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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