There are many reasons I enjoy working with our Access Programs here at the DMA, but one of the big ones is the chance to form relationships—relationships with participants and, in turn, their relationship with works of art in our galleries. The Meaningful Moments program for visitors with Alzheimer’s disease and their care partner (usually a spouse or family member) creates opportunities for people to have transformative experiences with works of art and with one another. I feel lucky to be a part of this each month. As I have gotten to know the participants over the years and spent time with them each month, I am reminded of the importance to live in the moment and to cherish each day that we get to spend with our loved ones. The Meaningful Moments program reinforces my belief in love and in the kindness of humanity.
If someone were to pass by our group in the galleries, it would appear as if longtime friends were chatting and reminiscing. In the studio, there is often laughter and joking as participants create and share their artwork. Many of the participants get together outside of the program, for lunches or support groups. I have received gardening tips and holiday cards from individuals in the program, and I have even visited the woodworking shop of a participant to learn how to use a lathe. The group is social and very welcoming to newcomers, but is also a supportive bunch of familiar faces.
Viewing and talking about works of art can unearth past memories, especially those still accessible to a person with Alzheimer’s disease. I have witnessed this many times during Meaningful Moments. From a Native American cradle sparking recollections about vacationing with young children, an exhibition with a beautiful wedding gown triggering detailed stories about participants’ wedding days, impressionist works reminding attendees of a favorite nature spot from their youth, or a print by Andy Warhol generating a lively discussion of life in the 1960s, artwork often serves as a catalyst to connect with the stories from the past and with loved ones in the present. During our gallery conversations, spouses (even those married more than fifty years) occasionally learn new things about their loved one’s past.
Crucial to the Meaningful Moments program, socialization and simulation play a key role and have been proven to help improve mood and behavior, as well as dramatically enhance quality of life. The social interaction and exploration of works in the collection are as gratifying to the spouse or family member as it is to the attendees with Alzheimer’s disease. I have seen care partners lean on one another for support and bond over shared experiences. One woman who used to bring her husband to the program still occasionally attends, even though her husband passed away two years ago. A couple who has attended the program since the beginning even schedules their doctor’s appointments and vacations around the program dates. A wife who brings her husband has told me that she needs the program, as it is a time when she can connect emotionally with him and not think about the disease for the two hours that they are in the Museum.
Since the program began four years ago, two of my favorite people in my life have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. I know how heartbreaking it can feel for this disease to affect someone you love, let alone how scary it must feel for the person diagnosed. The Meaningful Moments program is one of the best parts of my job and means so much to me as an educator—it is an honor to be welcomed into the circle of this small group of people and to become part of their experience as they journey through life navigating such a devastating disease.
Getting to know program attendees and seeing how much the couples genuinely and patiently care for one another, I have witnessed true love in action. To watch a husband gingerly fit a headpiece he designed around his wife’s head, to catch couples married fifty years holding hands in front of a Jackson Pollock, to be in the studio immersed in jewelry-making with attendees while listening to Duke Ellington and suddenly looking up to see an impromptu slow dance take place by one of the couples in the program are just a few of the many truly memorable experiences for me, and ones that I will always cherish.
To learn more about the DMA’s Meaningful Moments program, or for information on how to schedule a group from assisted-living facilities specializing in memory care, visit the Museum’s website or e-mail access@DMA.org.
Amanda Blake is the Head of Family, Access, and School Experiences at the DMA.