Art galleries open doors to those with mild memory loss

Much research has gone into the connection between art and Alzheimer’s Disease, and how engaging in the creative process helps unlock some of the mystery behind dementia.

Sometimes it’s therapeutic enough just to see beautiful works of art.

“Art has a way of bringing you back,” explains Julie Green, senior manager of school programs at Emory University’s Michael C. Carlos Museum.

For the past several years, the Emory gallery has been offering Museum Moments for people with early memory loss through Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairment.

Patterned after the successful Meet Me program by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, participants and their caregivers are invited for a free tour with a trained docent, giving them an art gallery experience in a controlled environment.

The tour pace is slow and the scope is limited, so as not to overwhelm participants. It’s also geared to spark conversation. When eyes light up upon viewing a particular piece of art, docents might ask them to share what they are thinking or what it reminds them of.

And sometimes they will relate a memory that they’ve never told anyone.

“We’ve had spouses who’ve been married for half a century say they’ve never heard them talk about that before,” said Green.

Alzheimer’s is a progressive brain disease affecting memory and thinking skills, but researchers have found that individuals in the early stages still have the ability to connect to art and music, said Suzette Binford, programs director of the Atlanta Regional Office for the Alzheimer’s Association, Georgia chapter.

“It’s so important, especially in the early stages. Because they can still relate to art in a special way it lets them feel like they still have a voice,” she said.

The Atlanta AA chapter recently hosted an Interactive Art Viewing event for people with early-stage memory loss at the Bill Lowe Gallery in Atlanta. The free event was created to stimulate the senses, trigger memories and conversation. Similar free events are being planned throughout the year. Those interested should contact Binford at

Other free art gallery tours for people with dementia are at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta and the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville.

In Augusta, Connections with Art was the first program in the state designed for Alzheimer’s, said Michelle Schulte, museum curator of education. Tours are generally given when the museum is quiet. They last about an hour and are followed by an art activity.

“While we don’t label it as therapy, the whole experience is therapeutic,” she said.

In Cartersville, the Rendezvous event is on the second Monday of each month at 10 a.m. Reservations are required. The life-like horse sculptures and cowboy art are familiar enough to spark conversation, or at least a smile. That in itself is deeply gratifying for the caregivers, said assistant educator Diane Parks.

While the tours aren’t specifically for family members, studies from the MoMA program found most expressed “profound gratitude” to have such a shared experience with their loved one.

“It’s something they can do with their loved one that’s not based on the impairment. They’re on a level playing field,” Binford said.

The museum experience itself may or may not be remembered on the trip back home. That, too, is all right, says Parks.

“There may be no carry over at all. It’s just a moment in time,” she said.