Reflections and Connections, a program run by the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in collaboration with the Alzheimer's Foundation, connects dementia and the healing properties of art. Art is a means of creative expression and entertainment, but beyond that, it has the capacity to inspire human connection.
“There's something about art that seems to pull out some memories. Sometimes people will talk about past experiences that they haven't talked about for awhile,” said Dante Fumagalli, a JSMA education assistant.
The program hosts individuals with young-onset or early- to mid-stage dementia and their care partners in impactful and educational art workshops. For the participants, art builds community, creativity and healing.
The JSMA provides educational services, events and rotating art exhibits for the campus community and beyond. Reflections and Connections, which started in August 2018, runs on the academic calendar with six meetings every term. Each program hosts 10 people for the term: five people living with dementia and each of their care partners.
The JSMA isn’t the first museum to try such a program — the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted the first program of its kind called Meet Me at MoMA in 2007. Reflections and Connections is one of two such programs in the state of Oregon, with the other at the Portland Art Museum.
“I think that it is really important that community institutions, especially arts and culture institutions, step up and offer services because it is such a long and gradual decline throughout the disease,” Rosemarie Oakman, an arts in healthcare graduate employee at the JSMA, said. “But there are so many interventions and health and well-being platforms like this program that can be used to really enhance that experience both for the person with dementia and their care partner.”
The Alzheimer's Association estimates that about 5.8 million people of all ages in the United States are currently living with Alzheimer's, a type of dementia, and more than 16 million Americans provide unpaid care for people with Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
Reflection and Connections’ participants are encouraged to build a community and share their stories with those around them.
“So much of it is about self-expression and getting to know how you feel about artwork, so it really doesn’t matter if you currently are coming in with a big background of knowledge because we really are experiencing all new things together every time we meet,” Oakman said.
The program breaks down the artistic process in a way that is stimulating, entertaining and easy to follow.
“My favorite thing about this program is definitely the people that we meet here. The people are so funny and so excited about art,” said a JSMA education project assistant Cassidy Shaffer.
Each two-hour session begins with a gallery tour in which the participants are taken through an exhibit on display in the museum. Participants break down each piece through conversations with their peers about the aspects of the piece that they enjoy.
“Participants get a sense of empowerment and there is a lot of relaxation,” said Hannah Bastian, a JSMA museum educator for studio programs and special projects. “Some people who maybe don’t see themselves as artists, but who are artists, get to see themselves in that light.”
Once the gallery tour is finished, the participants go into the art studio to create their own art based on what they just viewed.
Each time they meet, they work with a different artistic medium, allowing participants to try a number of different forms. They have worked with collages, clay, watercolor and acrylic paints, sketching and glazing. Before each art-making session begins, art experts from the museum staff break down the creation of the pieces and explain how the materials are used. The museum staff creates an example art piece that the participants can recreate or create their own art piece inspired by the pieces on display.
Barbara Newman is a care partner for one of the program’s participants and has seen its impact.
“She has created some things that we have given to her children as gifts. I like her to do things that are stimulating, whatever that may be,” said Newman. “This is a totally different activity, and she really likes this. She likes looking at the pictures, and she likes creating her own art.”
Occasionally, the connections within the exhibit go beyond the visual. The museum staff will play music or give the participants food that sound or taste like the items within the art piece. For instance, the participants were given two pieces of flavored chocolate, one lavender and the other mint, as they were viewing a nature-themed exhibit.
“I love the positivity and how accessible it is to everybody. The leaders are very positive and they make everyone feel included no matter how difficult it is to understand for anyone,” said Carol Reidy, a care partner of one of the participants.
The types of care partners vary: some of them are professional caregivers, family members and friends. Many of these people can be full-time care partners or sole providers for the person they take care of, and Reflections and Connections gives them the chance to be creative together.
“You get to know the people a bit and it's very nice. Everyone has something to offer and something special. Everything runs very smoothly and you get a lot of support,” Reidy said. “It’s not about creating a beautiful piece of art or anything, it's about bringing together people who are losing their memory and then doing something with that person.”
Participants must register in advance by contacting email@example.com or 541-346-6410.