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"We hear things like 'I didn't know this about my husband'"

The Azure programme for art galleries helps people living with dementia find new joys ln life.

Image: MoMA

LIVING WITH DEMENTIA can mean that families, couples, and carers face challenges on a daily basis.

But a programme being run in some Irish galleries is demonstrating how art can help people discover something new about their loved one with dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Bairbre-Ann Harkin of the Butler Gallery, which is involved with the Azure programme, said:

What you can feel is a situation where relationships go back to normal. Azure is about trying to create moments where, at least during the programme, people stop being ‘the person with dementia and their carer’ and, in some ways, go back to being husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter, sister and brother. Programmes like this allow for that moment, and that is a real privilege to see.

The Azure programme is inspired by Meet Me at MoMA in New York, and involves Age & Opportunity (A&O), the Alzheimer Society of Ireland (ASI), the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA).

Earlier this week, they carried out unique training with staff from other galleries to make art galleries dementia-friendly spaces.

The groundbreaking Meet Me at MoMA Programme is held once a month at the famous New York gallery. It sees trained educators help groups of people with dementia to engage with artworks in a new way.

Harkin, who did an internship at MoMA and was inspired by Meet me at MoMA, said the increasing ageing population here means more people living with dementia.

She said that the programme works because “you can do it in the moment - you’re not necessary relying on your short term memory. You can really respond to a work of art in that moment.”

“We’re not testing people”

The trained facilitator selects the art works that the group will see, and during the event they discuss the works in depth.

“It’s not asking people to rely on a knowledge base that they have. We’re not testing people,” said Harkin.

People get a chance to connect the artwork in their own lives. It can lead to stories and memories and discussions of things people have experienced themselves.

The benefits can be huge, and very personal.

The caring relationship there, that can impact on the relationship as it was before diagnosis. For the time they are in the gallery, they are there as mum and daughter, and husband and wife. It’s a really lovely social activity that they can do together. It’s not about the carer and the ‘caree’ anymore. It’s about that family relationship and having an enjoyable time but not based on the disease.
It’s stimulating, and stimulation is really important for somebody living with dementia.

People can participate at different levels, regardless of whether they are able to communicate verbally or not.

“We have seen people at advanced stages who may not communicate verbally who will clearly engage in the process by gesturing at the artwork.”

The group visits must be booked at the Butler Gallery, but the plan is to extend the programming to include a regular monthly visit.

“It’s an opportunity for their relationship to grow and develop.”

moma pic 2

Laurel Humble, an educator from MoMA, said the New York programme grew out of its work with older people, as it realised this included older people with dementia.

Wanting to find out more, the staff began researching dementia and the Meet Me at MoMA programme grew from there.

Each month, at least 80 people – many of them repeat visitors – come to the museum for its special programme.

“We hear from participants that some of them have been coming to MoMA for a long time and are able to see the museum in a new light,” said Humble.

We hear things like ‘I didn’t know this about my loved one’ or ‘I was so surprised to hear my husband say that about this artwork’. It’s an opportunity for their relationship to grow and develop. Hopefully they can learn from each other.

When the programme first began, Humble said there there was “not a lot of substantial helpful information about what Alzheimer’s disease actually was”, with a lack of understanding, and a lot of negative stereotypes around what people are capable of.

But through its work, MoMA has learned more about how dementia works, how it manifests itself, and exactly what people are capable of.

Within the programme, they find that repeating information or comments helps, both in keeping everyone on the same page, and also validating individual responses.

Also the pace and slowing down and allowing people  more time to process information. We become very mindful when working with this audience. I also say those are things I would apply in my teaching with everybody [now].

The work has also brought Humble closer to the work in the gallery. “It’s a good reminder every time you teach that you shouldn’t make assumptions about artwork,” said Humble. “You really are constantly surprised.”

The intention with the training this week in Ireland is to create a nationwide Azure network of galleries that cater for people living with dementia.

The hope is the participants will learn the requisite skills and then go out and bring them to their communities and their galleries.

“I’m very excited to see what comes out of it,” said Humble.

Read: ‘In spite of themselves, people begin to see you in a different way’>

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