Tour group helps Alzheimer's patients connect through artwork

Meghan B. Kelly

When you have Alzheimer’s, the past and the future become less important — what matters for people living with the disease is the present.

A local non-profit is working to help Alzheimer’s patients to live fully in their present with free tours of local art museums.

ARTZ (Artists for Alzheimer’s) Museum Networks hosts tours of the National Heritage Museum on Marrett Road once a month for patients with Alzheimer’s, who come from all over the state to tour the museum and experience its art.

Tuesday morning a group of nine elderly residents from Sunrise of Arlington were touring the museum, led by volunteer Carol Johnson.

Sunrise resident Diane Meadow, who was once a volunteer at the museum, said she was enjoying the tour. “It’s interesting to learn all the things you should know,” she said.

For these patients, “everything is in the moment,” said Mary Hogan, activity and volunteer coordinator for Sunrise. Many of the patients at Sunrise with Alzheimer’s struggle with their past memories, but Hogan said they can still enjoy the artwork on the walls.

The group, mostly women, slowly toured one exhibit, “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts,” while Johnson explained the artwork and staff members from Sunrise assisted the patients.

Not only does the museum tour help the Alzheimer’s patients connect with art, it also helps them connect with the outer community. Hogan said it is important for patients who are still mobile enough to get out and not feel constrained or locked away.

“It’s a program that believes that people can receive treatment, and the best form of treatment is to be engaged with society,” said ARTZ co-founder Sean Caulfield.

The program first began at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 2001, and has since become a permanent fixture there.

In 2008 the group received a grant from the McCance Family Foundation to develop a program in Massachusetts, and has worked ever since to implement the program at five museums in the state: the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, the Fuller-Craft Museum in Brockton and the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge.

Focusing on art and culture allows people with Alzheimer’s to experience something beautiful or meaningful without necessarily having all their full cognitive abilities, said Caulfield.

“When people are at museums, the opera, the symphony, they know who they are … It touches their emotional memory, which is a type of memory we hold onto our entire life,” he said.

The Lexington Minuteman