Wichita Art Museum program reaches out to Alzheimer’s patients

09/15/2013 12:00 AM

08/08/2014 10:34 AM

The Wichita Art Museum is using some of its world-famous paintings to connect with local Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers.

Called “The Presence Program: The Gift of Art,” WAM’s outreach was inspired by the “Meet Me at the MoMA” program launched in 2006 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art to encourage dementia patients to come out of their shell by talking about art and relating it to memories from their own lives.

“It’s a way to exercise the brain by promoting recollections of life experiences and stories that are slipping away,” said Annette LeZotte, interim curator of education at WAM, who noted it is the first of its kind in Kansas.

“We used New York’s model and adapted it to the art in our own collection,” LeZotte said. “It works because the needs of Alzheimer’s patients are universal.”

Best of all, LeZotte says, the museum didn’t have to worry about securing an arts grant or finding government or donor funding.

“The art in our collection is our raw resource and is already here,” she said. “The docents who work with the program are all volunteers.”

The program is not some sort of “cure” for Alzheimer’s, said Matt Hobart, who is a senior art history major at the University of Kansas and spent the summer as an intern at the museum studying ways to expand the program.

“There’s also no proof that it necessarily slows down or delays progress of the disease, although there is some anecdotal response that it might. The question is whether it’s a therapy or an activity to keep patients busy,” Hobart said.

“My feeling is that it is a therapy. We know that it makes Alzheimer’s more bearable. It helps lessen the isolation and depression. It definitely encourages mental stimulation. By making a personal connection with the art, it gives back a sense of control in their lives.”

The free program at the museum in Sim Park involves a monthly mini-tour of selected artworks and an accompanying interactive discussion lasting about an hour. It’s designed for early-to-mid-level Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers, and participants meet up with docents at 2 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month.

Because of space limits, reservations may be made by calling 316-268-4929. Groups so far have ranged from only a couple of people to as many as eight. Museum officials hope to launch an expansion of up to 15 at a time after comparing notes with other museums.

“We want to keep it small and manageable to encourage individual participation,” said Melanie Shurden, a WAM docent for six years who has been leading many of the Presence Program tours. “But there is room to expand. I’m looking forward to picking up tips from other programs to keep us from getting stale.”

Shurden was inspired to work with the program for personal reasons. Her father, who lives in Oklahoma, is in the early stages of dementia, and she thinks of him when she tries to draw out local participants.

“The first thing I do is assure people that there are no wrong answers. It’s not a class or a test. It’s something to enjoy,” Shurden said. “We keep it basic. We begin by talking about what’s happening in a painting, what colors they see and where we are looking from. Then we ask whether that reminds them of anything from their lives or whether the people (in the painting) remind them of anyone they’ve known.”

“Description,” “interpretation,” “connection” – that’s the three-step guide that docents are encouraged to use after training with mental health officials.

“Psychologists met with the docents to give us an overview of Alzheimer’s. Mostly, it was to tell us what not to do,” Shurden said.

“We never argue or correct someone, even if their observations are off. If they are too far off, we just redirect the conversation to something else. There’s no reason to challenge a patient. My goal is to let them feel comfortable enough to talk.”

Shurden said most of the artwork used for the program has been realistic or representational, but that occasionally she does throw in something abstract.

“We do use abstract because it’s like music. It’s about a language all its own. But most of the people prefer something recognizable. It’s more accessible and comfortable,” the docent said.

Shurden said she gladly puts in the volunteer hours as a docent because she wants Wichita Art Museum to be seen as more than just a stuffy place for housing highfalutin art.

“Museums should be like good citizens, doing things for their community. This is a great outreach that makes a difference, although I hate the overused cliche about ‘giving back to the community,’” Shurden said. “I enjoy this. I am proud to do this.”

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