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Arts program aims to help dementia patients unlock memories

Joy Weiner, director of education and public programs

Joy Weiner, director of education and public programs at The Heckscher Museum of Art, discusses "The Favored Scholar," an 1873 sculpture by John Rogers, during the "Exploring Art . . . Making Memories," program last month. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

Seven couples sit in chairs placed in semicircles at the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, clipboards in hand, listening to Joy Weiner talk about the paintings, sculptures and sketches surrounding them in the exhibition titled, “Men at Work.”

Weiner, the museum’s director of education and public programs, points out the different types of laborers depicted in the art; men of thought, men of action, men of labor and men of arts. But her purpose reaches beyond art enrichment.

These patrons are taking part in “Exploring Art . . . Making Memories,” a program designed for dementia patients and their caregivers that began in November 2013. In the Town of Huntington, the Heckscher Museum is one of three locations where the programs take place. About once a month, patients and their family caregivers can learn about the arts in a way that spurs recollections and encourages discussion of things past.

“There is a lot of research that says that art helps to stimulate people’s minds and create a relaxing environment,” says social worker Marcy Rhodes, who works with neurologically impaired patients at Rudansky and Winter Neurology and Neuropsychiatry in Huntington. Rhodes was key in bringing the programs to Huntington last year. She facilitates the program at Cinema Arts Centre, which helps those with dementia to socialize by offering a safe and welcoming environment. “It creates a channel for creative expression. It helps to stimulate their memories, and their verbal language, and nonverbal communications,” Rhodes says. The third Huntington location for the “Making Memories” program is The Whaling Museum & Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor, added in August 2015. A similar program is held in Stony Brook at the Long Island Museum.

The programs are based in part on the Museum of Modern Art’s “Meet Me at MoMA” Alzheimer’s Project that began in 2007, whose mission is “to make art accessible to people with dementia.”

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Groups are kept small, 10 patients and their “care partners.” The pairs stroll through the Heckscher Museum of Art exhibit to find an interesting painting, sketch or sculpture. On the clipboard is a sheet with questions asking them to choose a favorite artwork and then answer queries about it: “What do you like about it?” “What did you do for work?” “What did you like about your job?” “What did you not like about it?”

Theresa Matthews, a recently retired physical education teacher from Southdown Elementary School in Huntington, is asking her mother, Maureen Matthews, 84, of Cold Spring Harbor, to discuss an 1873 sculpture by John Rogers, “The Favored Scholar.” It portrays a teacher tutoring a child. “What did I do, Mom? What lessons did you enjoy at school?” They chat about the artwork. Maureen Matthews says she liked English the best when she was a student.

For many of the caregivers, “Making Memories” provides an occasional respite from everyday caregiving, a change of environment for the patients and the family member or friend who watches over them. And some say the change is helpful. “She’s a bit sharper for a few days afterward,” says Bayside, Queens resident Phil Levine of his wife, Jackie, who has dementia. The Levines are both 71. He brings her to the Huntington programs often. They have been to the MoMA program, too.

As for Jackie Levine, she enjoys her time in the museums, even though as a younger woman, she says, she wasn’t that interested in art. “It’s quiet. It’s nice. Everything is so beautiful,” she says. “What’s not to like?”

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, a quiet atmosphere does help the participants with their ability to focus or pay attention. So, at the museum, the group meets on Mondays, when it is closed to the public. Facilitators Weiner and Jess Mann, the museum’s art therapist, speak softly and ask many open-ended questions about the art. The atmosphere they create is casual and unhurried.

During a discussion about a Max Gaisser painting, “The Alchemist,” Philip Sturman, 69, remembers that he once did gold leaf detailing for a job when he was younger. His ex-wife, Alice Caruso, 68, who brought him to the museum, says she had no idea. “The picture made him remember it,” Caruso says. Sturman’s career was as a psychologist at Rockville Centre’s Mercy Medical Center’s psychiatric ward, but he talked about other jobs he remembered as a youth, such as serving Italian ices in Brooklyn. About an hour into the program, it was time for crafts. Each couple received a baseball-sized glob of soft modeling clay and some wooden tools such as rolling pins and sticks; the caregivers helping their partners create.

“We are expressing feelings through the tactile feeling of working with the model magic clay,” Mann says.

Barbara Stattel, 85, of Huntington, makes a long plume, texturizing it with a knobby rolling pin. “It’s using more than one sense,” says her daughter, Louise Stattel, 54, also of Huntington. “They’re engaged, and that’s what matters.”

The Whaling Museum and Education Center in Cold Spring Harbor already ran a popular Senior Tuesday program, so when Rhodes approached them with this idea, museum officials were happy to participate, says Cindy Grimm, education manager. “We always do a hands-on project, and base it on an artifact or two we have at the museum,” she says. Usually, they sit around the big whaling boat in the center of the room, and talk about what it might have been like to be a whaler.

At the March 14 “Making Memories by the Sea” event, the group will try their hands at scrimshaw. “They will carve their own foam plates, and roll it in ink,” then transferring them onto paper, Grimm says. “There are fine motor skills involved.”

At each event, the museum’s artifacts help promote socializing through conversations about the objects that can spark something relevant in their memories, according to Grimm.

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Cinema Arts, which joined the Huntington programs in December, fashioned its program for shorter attention spans. Showing a standard two-hour film can be a problem for those with dementia. It can be confusing to follow plot lines, for instance. But showing a five or 10-minute clip of a movie from their youth or younger adulthood often sparks memories, even if they can’t remember the name of the movie or actors.

“These are snippets of iconic films,” such as “Maltese Falcon” or “Singing in the Rain,” says Dylan Skolnick, co-director at the Huntington theater. “They tap into people’s memories.”

As with the other two programs, this is in a quiet setting when there is little traffic at the cinema, usually on a Monday afternoon in the cafe. Popcorn is served as caregivers and their charges watch the clips, and Rhodes guides the group into conversations about the movies.

“Most are musicals,” Rhodes says. “We do a lot of singalongs. When you put a song on, you see them sing along.”

A clip of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing, for instance, evokes younger days. “Afterward, so many of the people reminisce about how they used to dance with their spouses,” she says.

“It’s a tough challenge,” Skolnick says of the brain disease. “But suddenly, they are remembering things and enjoying themselves. And it triggers other memories, not just the movie, but where they saw it, and who they saw it with.”

 

Upcoming programs

Here are some of the upcoming programs. Registration is required for all locations. Cost for the three Huntington programs is $10; caregivers, free.

HECKSCHER MUSEUM OF ART — Programs are held Mondays at 1:30 p.m.; 631-351-3250; heckscher.org

April 25 — A musical performance by Timothy Dalton; a guided tour of exhibits.

June 27 — Guided tour of “Master of Illusion’s Magical Art” by Gary Erbe.

THE WHALING MUSEUM & EDUCATION CENTER

March 14, 2:30 p.m. Focus on scrimshaw. Register at least one week in advance; 631-367-3418, ext. 10; cshwhalingmuseum.org

CINEMA ARTS CENTRE

March 21, 11 a.m. Guided conversations to spark memories; 631-423-7610 ext. 19, cinemaartscentre.org

LONG ISLAND MUSEUM, Stony Brook — The “In the Moment” program gives a tactile experience, encourages discussion and sharing experiences, says Lauren Cesiro, assistant director of education. There is no set day for the events, but one is planned when there’s enough interest, free, 631-751-0066 ext. 212; longislandmuseum.org

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