On a recent Wednesday afternoon, The Jewish Museum was closed to the public. But a group of visitors to the second floor was looking closely at the art and installations, discussing the artist’s background and approach and commenting on what they saw and felt, sometimes expressing very strong opinions.
Prompted by a lively museum educator, some of the dozen or so participants related the artwork to their own lives; others expressed admiration for the representations of beauty.
The fact that even before they left the museum 90 minutes later, most would not remember what they saw, or where they had been, was beside the point.
About once a month during the school year, the museum opens its galleries to people with dementia and their family members or caregivers in a unique program called JM Journeys, believed to be the only such program offered at a Jewish museum. Usually, the group splits in two, with the procession of wheelchairs, rolling walkers and people holding gallery stools stopping in front of a few pieces of art for discussion, before heading to tables in the auditorium to do an art project together.
After viewing the recent exhibit of medieval manuscripts from the Bodleian Library, participants learned how to apply gold leaf to a parchment-like paper. The educators passed around the tools that the calligraphers and illuminators might have used, encouraging members of the group to try their hands at lettering by dipping a reed pen into ink.
I’ve been attending this program for two years, accompanying my mother. With patience, respect and real creativity, the educators and organizers thoroughly engage people who no longer can communicate as they once did, and lead them to new modes of expression. In the moment, the haze of dementia seems to lift.
Dara Cohen, the museum’s manager of school programs and outreach, points out that studies have shown the connection between visual art — whether looking at it or creating it — and memory. “There’s something about the immediacy, the fact that there’s something in front of the group that people connect to, as we’ve seen in some cases, that has brought back memories or allowed them to connect to past experience, in a way that daily discussion does not.”
Cohen runs the program, now in its second year, along with Meredith Wong, the museum’s scheduling and access coordinator, who added, “They’re not required to respond verbally. A blink of an eye or a gesture are all welcome and encouraged.”
The group varies each session, and most participants are late middle-aged and up; they come from Manhattan as well as from Brooklyn and Queens. Some arrive with caregivers, others with family members, and some with both. Several arrive as couples, with one spouse helping or holding the hand of the other. Everyone wears a nametag. No one says the word “dementia.”
A regular attendee, Victoria Pacaud, just turned 100. Her caregiver, Juan-Carlos Rojas, who always shows up dressed in jacket and tie, said, “It’s so interesting to come here. I’m learning about Jewish history. We always hear something beautiful. “
Educators address the participants by their first names. There are no right answers here, and all responses are met with affirmation, even those that trail off. People speak with honesty, like the woman who was asked what she saw in R.B. Kitaj’s piece “Transitions,” with its muted colors, in the current show “R.B. Kitaj: Personal Library.” “Nothing,” she replied.
At another session, at the exhibit “As it were … So to speak: A Museum Collection in Dialogue with Barbara Bloom,” the group was asked to describe the woman sitting alone at a table, with Shabbat candles lit, in Isidore Kaufmann’s 1920 painting, “Friday Evening.” Some said she looks lonely, or like a widow, but a woman who has lit Shabbat candles for decades said with conviction, “No, she is waiting.”
And Rhoda Resnick of Manhattan, delighting in the installation artist’s assemblages, asked, “Is Barbara Bloom here? I’d like to meet her.”
At the exhibition’s stand of spice boxes, educator Hollie Ecker passed around small vials of scents to the group, and had them match the scents with colors. A ceramic artist, she said later, “I always think of multi-modal ways of thinking about art.”
“More than anything, we’re trying to create a happy moment in the now that may or may or may not remind them of happy times in their lives,” Ecker said.
Wong said she enjoys watching the studio component of the program. “For someone with dementia, the idea of getting their fingers dirty experimenting with art materials is not an experience they normally have. There’s something about the physical act of making art that is just great. It’s wonderful to watch in action. And art making stimulates the brain — they’re more likely to be more verbally expressive while making art.”
Cohen and Wong speak of the importance of engaging the caregiver, whether a professional or family member, as well as the person with dementia, to help them to work together, and also to provide needed stimulation to the caregiver, who is often isolated .
Cohen explains that in establishing the program, the museum partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association and Arts & Minds, a nonprofit organization committed to improving quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. They did extensive training and planning. Now, the Metropolitan Museum, The Museum of Modern Art, The Rubin Museum, The Studio Museum of Harlem and The New York Historical Society are among the museums with similar programs.
Lin Jacobson accompanies her husband Manny from their Upper West Side home to The Jewish Museum and to programs at several other museums around the city. “We always went to museums,” she said, looking back on their younger years. “Now, to have the opportunity to visit a museum and sit and discuss a work of art — to begin a conversation — is so rich, it’s like a graduate seminar.”
Jack Resnick added, “It’s very stimulating for my wife. And it’s nice to get out of the house.”
Myrlande Pierre-Loiseau, a caregiver who was born in Haiti and recently became a citizen, said that she hadn’t been to museums before and is learning from the teachers, seeing art she has never seen before. As for the woman she lovingly cares for, she says, “When she’s looking at art, she’s more alive and interested, freely offering opinions.”
Matt Kudish, director of Education, Outreach and Caregiver Services at the New York City chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association, which has been involved with initiating programs in many museums, notes that conversations can be very basic — about colors, or about more complex issues, depending on where the participant is, in terms of stages of the disease.
“We have all these assumptions about what a person with dementia can do,” he continued. “We see people who are non-verbal, and when they are asked certain kinds of questions in the right environment, they are drawn out in amazing and beautiful ways. These programs can provide opportunities for surprise — that’s what hope is, to be open to surprises and to opportunities.”
The program is free for participants, who are treated like honored guests at The Jewish Museum. The security guards go the extra mile too, in helping these visitors get in and out of the building. Funding comes from private foundations, individual donors and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
Betty Francolo and her husband William travel to the Museum from Kew Gardens, Queens. She said, “It’s enlightening for him. He doesn’t remember much the next day but that doesn’t matter. He enjoys the day.”
The final program for the season, on June 19, will include an exhibit of art created by participants. For information about registering for future events, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.