Museum-goers, old and young, gathered in front of a gallery wall full of centuries-old paintings to share ideas in an open discussion. Many of the participants, who were present and engaged throughout the 90-minute session, live with dementia.
For nearly six years, the Frye Art Museum has facilitated “here:now,” an experiential arts program for people living with early- to mid-stage dementia and their care partners (typically close family members and/or partners) – the only program of its kind in Washington state. Participants engage in semi-monthly gallery tours as well as art-making classes that focus on a theme discussed throughout the tours.
A few years following the launch, clinical assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, Dr. Lee Burnside, developed a conceptual model to measure the impact of “here:now.” Burnside says while scarce literature exists in the area of arts engagement and memory loss research, the goal of the study was to determine what the specific benefits of these programs are.
Burnside conducted a qualitative study – mainly through a collection of interviews with participants and their care partners. Scientists are often hesitant to use people with memory-loss diseases as subjects, he notes, but the participants’ perspectives were crucial to the research.
The results of the study came in the form of a long list of themes, including joint respite (a short period of rest and relief for both parties), relationship normalizing (a return to the standard/pre-dementia state of the relation), and personal growth. Since the program encourages socialization, participants expressed feelings of normalcy, particularly within the relationship with their care partner. For many couples this came in the form of joint respite, says Mary Jane Knecht, manager of creative aging programs at the Frye.
A conceptual model of the participant experience at the Frye's here:now program, derived from the results of Burnside's study. Photo courtesy of Dr. Lee Burnside
“The care partner takes on a primary role in caring for the person, which can really alter the relationship,” she says. "So people are being challenged with the ways of their relationship. The program provides an opportunity for them both to be out in public in a social situation, but experiencing on their own.”
A care partner who was interviewed for the study agreed. The participant stressed that instead of respite as a separation, the pair was able to enjoy an activity together, yet still experience independence and personal growth.
“[It] allows us not to think about what we are dealing with, but focus on something that is pretty pleasant – all of that are and what we feel about art. There is no immediate need to deal with the disease you know,” said the care partner, who was not named for purposes of the study.
A participant works on a drawing during the art-making portion of here:now at the Frye. Photo courtesy of the Frye Art Museum
While the study confirmed the meaningfulness of participants’ experiences, the Frye used feedback from the study to enhance and expand its Creative Aging programming. The study documented a need to provide ongoing curriculum when the disease progresses, Knecht says. So, “Bridges,” an off-site program was introduced as a response to Burnside’s model. As opposed to participants coming to the museum, educators travel to homes and care facilities to provide creative engagement.
The museum also offers "Meet Me at the Movies," a motion picture experience for participants who may find film to be a more approachable art form. As the Frye continues to add to its Creative Aging options, Burnside encourages the fusion of arts and medicine in other fields and facets of dementia practices.
“I think it’s really important that some of the more hardcore traditional medical practices incorporate arts into their full approach to caring for people and their families,” he says. “We need to look at how we can do that better and more often.”
Learn more about the Frye's Creative Aging programs here.