The Arts Fusion program at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, offers opportunities for patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, as well as their caregivers, to participate in docent-led discussions of museum exhibitions.
On a chilly early winter afternoon, a group of men and women gather at the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. This month, the Arts Fusion group is discussing tapestries by Kiki Smith.
As an enthusiastic debate erupts about the artist’s depiction of a wolf, one woman stands slightly aside, eyes fixated on the tapestry in question. Her eyes sparkle as they trace the interwoven movements of shapes and colors beautifully captured by Smith’s artistic vision. A smile lights her face as she chimes in confidently, “This speaks to me. It is so elegant and beautiful.”
From a glance, the woman and the rest of her group seem no different than other visitors to the Maier. But for them, this time to connect and engage with art is precious.
They struggle with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.
The woman’s caregiver, Cathy Rountrey, sits nearby with a smile on her face. “She cannot recognize her children or the house she has been living in for 15 years,” she said. “Alzheimer’s has made her lose a sense of self and her connection to others. She used to be an artist and she used to paint a lot, but now, she can’t even pick up her fork and spoon at dinner.”
Thanks to the Arts Fusion program at the Maier, Rountrey’s patient is able to spend an hour a month with the art she loves. “Everything has changed since she started,” Rountrey said. “When she is here, able to talk about art and engage in interesting discussions with others in the group, she feels more lively and invigorated. In an hour, she finds herself again.”
That experience is exactly the reason why Randolph first partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association, Central and Western Virginia Chapter in 2012. One of the Association’s members, Sharon Celsor-Hughes, has a degree in curatorial studies and knew a program at the Maier would fill a need in the community.
The Arts Fusion program visits, offers opportunities for patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, as well as their caregivers, to participate in docent-led discussions of museum exhibitions. Each participant brings different needs, though most are high functioning.
Inspired by a similar project at the Museum of Modern Art, Arts Fusion allows participants to engage in an interactive environment where they are free to talk and explore art as a group.
Maier staff members were excited when Celsor-Hughes first suggested the idea. “We thought that it would be an opportune time for this partnership and to make art accessible for Alzheimer’s patients around the area,” said Martha Johnson, director of the Maier. “Arts Fusion has the potential to provide yet another opportunity for our students to be involved in museum work first-hand. It has cross-disciplinary appeal with roots in education and psychology.”
During the monthly visits, participants talk, joke and express themselves freely.
The program has received accolades from attendees and caregivers. One regular participant once told organizers that he felt like he could leave the disease outside. “I don’t have to worry about what I say or can’t say,” the person said. “I am with others who understand so our time is spent looking, talking, and laughing about the art. I am always in a better frame of mind after these programs.”
Johnson recalls a participant who passed away last year. “I remember his last visit and his quiet joy, soaking in the beauty and serenity of a gorgeous landscape,” she said. “He had been grateful that we chose that particular painting to discuss because the month before we had chosen a challenging and somewhat brash work of contemporary art, and he had not made any pretense of liking it.
“This freedom to express visceral reactions to artwork in an atmosphere of safety and humor is what makes Arts Fusion so magical for everyone involved,” she added.