Supporting Cognitive and Emotional Health Through the Arts

Meredith Wong Manager of connect2culture®

Connect2culture® at CaringKind seeks to enrich the lives of people living with dementia and their caregivers through the arts. Funded by the New York State Department of Health Alzheimer's Disease Community Assistance Program, connect2culture supports cultural and educational institutions that are already giving people with dementia and their caregivers opportunities to engage in art through guided experience. It also helps organizations create programs that invite diverse perspectives and responses, and assists caregivers in identifying and exploring existing programs appropriate to their interests and needs.

I am excited to be in a position where I can support different types of organizations that encourage this population to make time for creative exploration in their busy lives. Participatory programs like those in many of New York’s cultural institutions seek to create a space where self-expression is encouraged, helping to reassure participants that their responses are valid and welcome. Program participants often tell me how appreciative they are to spend time discovering a work with an educator's guidance. When I visit a museum, I prefer spending time with a small number of my favorite works, rather than rushing to see everything in the galleries. It’s much more meaningful to take time to visually explore a work of art, to think about the artist’s choices and to connect it with personal experiences, or just to appreciate the artist's vision and imagination. These are some of the ideas that museums hope their visitors take away with them as they walk through the galleries.

When a visitor expresses a unique perspective or draws attention to a part of a painting that they connect with, they take ownership of the program in that moment. Perhaps they discuss the meaning of a gesture or another of the artist’s creative choices. When participants are asked to talk with their partner about a work, it’s gratifying to know that art was at the root of the interactions. It’s then that I know how meaningful this experience is to them. Caregivers are given the freedom to think about something creative and fun, and to engage with the person they are caring for in a different and sometimes new context. Gradually, as these participants become repeat program visitors, they develop friendly relationships with museum staff, from the security guards to education staff, and also become familiar with the galleries.

Facilitated gallery discussions and art-making experiences give visitors alternative ways of appreciating works of art. While one person may understand artistic concepts by just looking, another may find it easier and more enjoyable to experiment with the ideas by using a piece of clay or a paintbrush. Educators also have been increasingly integrating movement and music into their programs to help bring a work to life. For example, a pair of jazz musicians enlivened an exhibition of abstract paintings that had similar visual energy. In a separate exhibition, participants mirrored the syncopated movements in a contemporary video installation to feel the rhythms set down on paper by its choreographer.

For museums and other cultural organizations, connect2culture offers ongoing trainings and discussion forums specifically tailored to the educator’s needs and those of the general museum staff. In addition, an annual symposium brings together educators and other interested professionals to discuss current issues and research, best practices, or perhaps to participate in a model tour.

We look forward to growing this program through partnerships with local organizations, and by talking with and supporting museum colleagues so that they may better serve this audience. We are pleased to welcome educators from other learning environments — living collections such as aquariums, zoos and botanical gardens; performing arts organizations; and history and natural history museums — who will bring diverse voices to the conversation and help to broaden the reach of connect2culture.

Connect2culture holds a unique position at CaringKind, building relationships between cultural institutions and people affected by Alzheimer's, and also facilitating new conversations and interactions through the arts.

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