Fine Art
2:00 am
Thu May 17, 2012

A Museum Visit For Art Lovers With Alzheimer's

Originally published on Thu May 17, 2012 5:58 am

Many art lovers feel completely in the moment when they stroll through the galleries of a museum. That feeling was particularly true on a recent morning at the Kreeger Museum in Washington, D.C. The Kreeger runs a special program for people with Alzheimer's — seniors, their caregivers and middle school students are paired together to enjoy the art and one another's company.

The mansion turned gallery was designed in 1967 by renowned architect Philip Johnson for art collector and philanthropist David Kreeger and his wife, Carmen. The collection includes works by Picasso, Renoir, Arp, Bellows, Albers, Miro, and many others, plus pre-Columbian, Asian and African art — a wide-ranging, personal collection, assembled by the former GEICO chairman and his wife.

Recently, small teams of seniors and students from the Holton Arms and Landon schools gathered to discuss three works in the collection: two pieces of sculpture, and Claude Monet's painting Sunset at Pourville.

In the Monet canvas, two figures walk along the green-blue pastel beach as the pink sun sets in the distance. "It kind of seems romantic," one student offers. Others say its muted colors are peaceful and luminescent.

Barbara Kern asks her husband, Sig Gordon, to imagine himself inside Monet's painting. "Sig, if you were walking there, would you like it there?" she asks.

"Oh, yes. Very much so," he answers. Gordon, an art lover in his 70s, found out about the Kreeger program through his Alzheimer's support group.

Christina Hogg, a seventh-grader at Holton Arms, asks her senior companion, Hershel Katz, whether he perceives the scene as calm. "Pretty calm," he answers, and adds: "Salty, salty, salty air. Whenever you go to the beach you can go into the sand."

A key part of this program is to get the young people interacting with their elders — trying to make connections over art. There are similar programs at other museums around the country. The program at the Kreeger runs four times a month, with some 10 or so participants at each session. Derya Samadi, who runs the Kreeger's Alzheimer's program, says art museums have always been places of refuge and stimulation for her, and they serve the same purpose for men and women with Alzheimer's.

"There's something about being in the stimulating environment," Samadi says. "It's there for them; they haven't lost it. They just can't connect to it. So you're just trying to open up channels for them."

Samadi reaches out using visual art, and poetry as well. The group reads from Robert Frost's poem "Acceptance." It begins:

When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud
And goes down burning into the gulf below,
No voice in nature is heard to cry aloud
At what has happened. ...

The group sits quietly. Some engage with the poem; others look around the room. Hershel Katz's wife, Linda, says she likes the last line of Frost's poem: Into the future. Let what will be, be.

"We have to remember that what's going to be is going to be," she says. "This is a very accepting picture. It's just this moment in time and it's all very beautiful."

Appreciating the present. Facing the future. These are both themes of the Kreeger program. "The goal is to make people feel better and to give them a pleasant experience in the moment. That's all there is, really," Samadi says.

The presence of the young people seems to make the moments more vivid. The students are very outgoing and eager. After they sign up for the Kreeger program, they get hourlong training sessions at their schools — they learn how to reach out, how to repeat their words if they aren't understood — or remembered — the first time, how to help people feel comfortable.

"I have some relatives who've had Alzheimer's and it runs in families," says Holton Arms student Christina Hogg.

"My brother's actually mentally disabled," explains sixth-grader Spencer Davis. "So I thought it'd be nice to get to know people who have trouble with things sometimes and get their perspectives."

Davis' brother is 18 and unable to talk. The visit with people living with Alzheimer's shows Spencer that even though his brother has different problems, he's not alone. "Sometimes it's hard to be with him 'cause I can't really do much with him," Davis admits, "but being here with these people, I realize it's not so different being with him. It's just harder to communicate with him."

He says his day at the Kreeger made him think his brother might enjoy visiting a museum. "I think it'd be nice to see how he reacts to the art," Spencer says.

This day with art, at the former home of an insurance company mogul and his wife, is full of lessons for its visitors, young and old. Samadi appreciates all the interactions — but she's also a realist. She knows that 10 minutes after they leave the Kreeger, the participants with Alzheimer's may not remember what happened at the museum.

"But they can still have their mood improved even if they don't remember," she says. "It's not a cure for the disease, but it makes people feel better and there are some connections. People are shut down, and they start talking."

And it's true: Two men, who began the morning with polite smiles and vacant eyes, gradually started connecting with the Kreeger conversations, adding thoughts and becoming energized. It was good to see — for however long it lasted.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The Kreeger Museum is a mansion in Washington, D.C. It was designed in 1967 by renowned architect Philip Johnson for the art collector and philanthropist David Kreeger. The museum is the setting for some unusual art discussions. The Kreeger runs a program for people with Alzheimer's and their caregivers.

NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg says the program brings together middle school students and people with dementia to enjoy art as well as one another's company.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm Cameron(ph).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Do you know Ian(ph)?

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Seventh and 8th graders, girls from Holton Arms private school in their plaid skirts, boys from Landon in blue blazers, ties, and khakis, getting name tags and smiles as they meet the couples they'll spend this morning with.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Griffin(ph), nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kevin Keslo(ph) .

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: What grade are you in?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm in the eighth.

STAMBERG: Sig Gordon, in his 70s, found out about the Kreeger program through his Alzheimer's support group.

Are you usually an art lover?

SIG GORDON: Yes.

STAMBERG: I mean a regular museum-goer? Where do you like to go and what do you like to see?

GORDON: Oh. I don't know that I can...

STAMBERG: The Kreeger has works by Picasso, Renoir, Arp, Bellows, Albers, Miro, many others, plus pre-Columbian, Asian and African art; a wide-ranging personal collection assembled by David and Carmen Kreeger. He was chairman of GEICO. On this day, the young and older visitors will look at and discuss three works in the collection: two pieces of sculpture, and Claude Monet's painting "Sunset at Pourville." Two young people describe it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Two people at night, the sun is going down, and there's a mountain in the background.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I mean it kind of seems romantic.

STAMBERG: Others say it's peaceful, luminescent with its pastel oranges and blues. Barbara Kern asks her husband Sig about it.

BARBARA KERN: Sig, if you were walking there, how would you feel? Would you like it there?

GORDON: Oh yes, very much. Very much so - trees, all kinds of things in nature.

KERN: Does it look calm to you or like...

GORDON: Pretty calm, I would say pretty calm.

STAMBERG: Seventh grader Christina Hogg sits with Hershel Katz. A key part of this program is to get the young people interacting with their elders, trying to make connections over art.

HERSHEL KATZ: Salty air, you know, you can - whenever you get to a beach or something you like, you go into the sand.

CHRISTINA HOGG: What time do you think it is?

KATZ: The time? I'm not good on time.

STAMBERG: Derya Samadi runs this Alzheimer's program. There are similar programs at other museums around the country. In Washington, four times a month, some 10 or so participants come to the Kreeger. Derya says art museums have always been places of refuge and stimulation for her, and they serve the same purpose for the Alzheimer's folks.

DERYA SAMADI: There's something about being in the stimulating environment. It's there for them. They haven't lost it. They just can't connect to it. And so, you're just trying to open up channels for them.

STAMBERG: Derya reaches out through visual art and poetry that relates to the images. The group reads together from Robert Frost's poem "Acceptance."

GROUP: When the spent sun throws up its rays on cloud. And goes down burning into the gulf below...

STAMBERG: Of the men, only Hershel is reading along. The other two are just sitting, looking around.

GROUP: Let what will be, be.

SAMADI: Are there any lines in the poem that you particularly like or relate to?

LINDA KATZ: I kind of like the last line, because we have to remember that, you know, what's going to be is going to be. So...

STAMBERG: Hershel's wife, Linda Katz.

KATZ: And also, this is a very accepting picture. I mean it's just this moment in time and it's just very beautiful. It's just a very wholesome picture.

STAMBERG: Acceptance, what will be will be, a moment in time. Program director Derya Samadi underscores that theme.

SAMADI: The goal is to make people feel better and to give them a pleasant experience in the moment. That's all there is, really.

STAMBERG: The presence of the young people seems to make the moments more vivid. The students are very outgoing and eager. After they sign up for the Kreeger program, they get hour-long training sessions at school - how to reach out, repeat something if it's not understood the first time, repeat it as often as they like, try to make the people feel comfortable.

Christina Hogg tells why she signed up.

HOGG: I have some relatives who had Alzheimer's and it runs in families. So I just wanted to do something different.

STAMBERG: Sixth grader Spencer Davis explains his reason for being there.

SPENCER DAVIS: Well, my brother's actually mentally disabled. So I thought it'd be nice to get to know people who have trouble with things sometimes and get their perspectives, because my brother can't talk.

STAMBERG: This visit with Alzheimer's people shows Spencer that even though his 18-year-old brother has different problems, he and his brother are not alone.

DAVIS: Sometimes it's hard to be with him 'cause I can't really do much with him. But when being here with these people, I realize that it's not so different being with him. It's just that - it's just harder to communicate with him.

STAMBERG: Does this give you the idea maybe bring him here? Or take him to a museum?

DAVIS: Yeah, I think it'd be nice to see kind of how he reacts to the art. And see if he has any feelings toward them.

STAMBERG: So this day with art, at the former home of an insurance company mogul and his wife, is full of lessons for its visitors, young and old. Alzheimer's program director Derya Samadi appreciates all the interactions. And she's a realist. She knows that 10 minutes after they leave the Kreeger, the ones with Alzheimer's may not remember what happened at the museum.

SAMADI: But they can still have their mood improved even if they don't remember. It's not a cure for the disease but it makes people feel better. And there are some connections, you know, people who are very, you know, almost they're sort of shut down. They start talking.

STAMBERG: They do. They did. Two men, who began the morning with polite smiles and vacant eyes, gradually started connecting with the Kreeger Museum conversations, adding some thoughts, becoming energized. It was good to see, for however long it lasted.

In Washington, I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.