“You meet somebody and you might have a preconceived concept of what they might be like. Then we start talking about art and it becomes a fellowship and it brings you close together. I think we get to know them in a much deeper sense than we do just in support group, in a very touching way. This program has been one of the greatest gifts we had in our journey with this—this disease of Alzheimer’s.”

It’s the first Wednesday of the month at the High Museum of Art and 20 participants have joined us for “Musing Together,” a program that serves adults living with memory loss and their caretakers. This pilot program was launched in spring 2017 in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia Chapter and occurs on the first Wednesday of every month. Adults in the early stages of dementia, along with their caretakers, are screened by the Alzheimer’s Association for eligibility in this pilot program. Participants receive free entry to the museum and are led on a 90-minute tour by teaching artist and museum educator Amanda Williams. The tours focus on up to five works of art, from Modern and Contemporary to American and African Art. Using the art as a springboard and Visual Thinking Strategies, Williams engages with the groups, eliciting reactions and opinions on the works of art from the participants as well as memories and stories from their past.

In the United States, 1 in 10 adults age 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia. As the size of the U.S. population age 65 and older continues to increase, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s or other dementias will escalate rapidly. The population of Americans age 65 and older is projected to nearly double from 48 million to 88 million by 2050. The baby boom generation has already begun to reach age 65 and beyond, the age range of greatest risk of Alzheimer’s; the first members of the baby boom generation turned 70 in 2016.

Although cultural institutions have created programs for this population for many years, how these programs are created—how educators are intentional in the works of art they select for the program, how much research and evaluation is put into a session, etc.—is growing and becoming more substantial. The term “creative aging” has caught more interest over the years. The Arizona Commission on the Arts defines creative aging as “a national movement to advance understanding of the vital relationship between creative expression and healthy aging, and a term used to encompass the many types of quality arts programs which support and enrich the lives of adults across the aging spectrum” (age 55-100). So, how are we doing it? And are these programs effective?

The Frye Museum in Seattle, Washington provides bi-monthly gallery tours for people in the early stages of dementia and their caregivers, as well as a combination of tours and art-making, in a program titled “here: now.” The Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas offers those in the early stages of dementia and their caregivers a tour and discussion as well as an art-making activity in their program “Meaningful Moments.” “Minds on Art” at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in Detroit, Michigan involves gallery discussions led by DIA staff and volunteers, followed by art-making. Veronica Franklin Gould, Founder and President of Arts 4 Dementia in London, reminds us: “People’s artistic, imaginative, and emotional responses—particularly in Alzheimer’s disease—can remain strong for years after the onset of dementia.”

Art museums in particular are focusing on how to create public programs that are inclusive for this growing population, caregivers, and family members, taking into consideration mental health, generational interactivity, family programming, art education, and more. As always, visitor survey feedback and participant evaluations are key to the success, as well as funding sources and donor interest to support such programs. Studies have shown that art museums with programming for people living with dementia, as well as their caregivers, is hugely beneficial, including stress relief and reduced feelings of isolation. Museums are stimulating spaces that spark memories, imaginations, and conversations.