U.Va. Art Museum Program Reaches Out to Alzheimer's Patients

January 28, 2011
January 28, 2011 — A pilot program at the University of Virginia Art Museum uses art to engage those with Alzheimer's disease in stimulating conversation.

"Eyes on Art," which began in September, is a collaboration with the Alzheimer's Association, Central and Western Virginia Chapter.

Sharon Hughes, the museum's docent coordinator, said the sessions are not fine arts lectures, but are instead based on the inquiry method, which helps engage the participants, who are often withdrawn, in conversation.

"The program is designed to provide quality-of-life experiences through engagement with the museum's artwork," museum director Bruce Boucher said.

"We are thrilled to work with Charlottesville's local Alzheimer's Association to bring art therapy to a special sector of our community," he said. "Research has demonstrated that looking at art elevates the mood of those suffering from Alzheimer's and their caregivers. This program embraces the museum's mission of outreach to the community in a special and rewarding way." 

Groups of six to eight individuals with beginning to mid-stage Alzheimer's disease visit the museum from local residential facilities and community groups. They meet with docents Gay Frix and Melinda Hope in 45-minute sessions while the museum is closed so they can relax and focus on the art-centered discussions.

Frix and Hope work with Hughes and the museum's education department to identify three works of art and to develop ideas to stimulate memories. They choose images that are engaging and uplifting.

Frank Stella's abstract, 3-D painting "Jerdon's Courser" is a work that people either love or hate, Hughes said. "But it evokes a real connection with men who have an engineering background."

For them, a curved section of the work resembles a protractor, a semicircular instrument used to construct and measure curves. The docents expand on that connection by having protractors as memory aids to pass around among the participants.

"You ask questions to direct what you want people to get on their own," said Hope, who had been conducting docent-led tours at the museum for 26 years.

Another painting, "The Lobby," by Willard Midgette, also draws out the participants, Frix said.

"It's life-like, realistic and from the 1970s. The light bulb comes on for these folks. Maybe they had a pair of shoes or pants like that," she said.

One participant chose to talk about the only person who is smiling in the painting, Hughes said. "He determined it was a hospital lobby and he had just come from seeing his new grandbaby."

"It's rewarding to see smiles on their faces and their eyes light up when they recognize things from the past," Frix said.

"Our Good Earth," a World War II poster by John Steuart Curry, sparks a lot of recognition and discussion. "It's a time they have a direct connection with," Hughes said.

Ration books that belonged to Hughes' grandmother are additional conversation starters. The discussion sometimes leads to memories of WWII-era Victory Gardens and what they could buy with the coupons.

Although the docents have prepared questions to prompt discussion, the conversation follows where the participants lead.

The museum visits include "turn and talk" sessions, where the participants pair up with caregivers, staff and docents for quiet discussion. Docent Barbara Battiston assists in these discussions and helps to move the group from one work of art to the next.

"For some of the reluctant ones, or those with hearing difficulties, it's a time to draw them out. For others, they just appreciate the time for one-on-one discussions," Hughes said. "We want to make sure that everyone has spoken and also has one-on-one contact."

"The feedback has been phenomenal," said Ellen Phipps, vice president of programs and services at the Alzheimer's Association. "People become animated. They are speaking more and they are engaged and having fun."

Hughes, Frix and Hope also worked with Caroline Even, the coordinator of the Alzheimer's Association's Arts Project, to plan the tour logistics and art selection.

Even organizes the visits, coordinating with the residential facilities – Rosewood Village, Rosewood Village at Hollymead, Morningside, The Laurels and The Cedars – plus the Jefferson Area Board of Aging's day care program and community groups through the Alzheimer's Association.

"It's been wonderful," Even said. "The facilities are really grateful for the opportunity for people with dementia. There's a lot of excitement about it."

To prepare for the program, Ellen Phipps of the Alzheimer's Association guided the docents in a training session that focused on the disease, the participants' capabilities and how the docents might need to adapt their skills to accommodate a new demographic.

The team also consulted with Donna Hearn, a psychology professor in the College of Arts & Sciences and executive director of U.Va.'s Institute on Aging, to plan the program. They also looked to Alzheimer's outreach programs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, as well as museums at other universities, to model the program and learn from their docent training programs.

The project is funded through the Alzheimer's Art Project of the Alzheimer's Association, Central and Western Virginia Chapter, by a grant from the Blue Moon Fund and museum donors Jo Rowan and Lisa Milbank.

— by Jane Ford

Media Contact

Jane Ford

U.Va. Media Relations