A group of elderly people sit on folding chairs, gazing upon a painting of a golden Buddha sitting in smiling repose. They listen as a museum docent tells the life story of Siddhartha Gautauma, and his journey from sheltered prince to radical ascetic. After the docent recounts the splendor and decadence within the walls of the palace of Siddhartha’s father, he poses a rhetorical question to the crowd: “So what would you do if your life was like the first half of the Buddha’s––that is, if you had anything and everything you wanted, but were confined to one place for the rest of your life?” 

“Scream,” one man immediately answers, and the participants and the guide break into laughter. 

Moments like these, of relaxed, imaginative interaction with art, are a regular part of a Mindful Connections tour, a free monthly program at the Rubin Museum of Art that uses the collection of vibrant Himalayan art to engage its patrons with dementia and their caregivers. 

Dementia symptoms can cause devastating mental and physical ruptures in one’s life, and make it difficult to maintain a sense of personal creativity and expression. But creative arts programs in museums like the Rubin, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art are doing their part to intervene. 

“I’ve seen that interacting with the art really helps people express themselves in ways they aren’t able to in day-to-day life,” Laura Sloan, manager of docent and access programs at the Rubin, told Tricycle. “In terms of people with dementia, simply asking them, ‘Do you like this or not?’ gives them the freedom to say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ Or, if they notice something in particular, like ‘This person looks angry,’ you can ask them, ‘Well, why do you think they look angry?’ It helps them to dig deeper on an emotional level.” 

In their 2012 paper “‘Shall I Compare Thee a Dose of Donepezil?’: Cultural Arts Interventions in Dementia Care Research,” scholars Kate de Medeiros and Anne Basting challenged what was then a common approach in gerontology, the study of aging. Scientific studies had been approaching creative programs the same way that they had tested the effects of pharmaceutical drugs—like Donepezil, which is used to treat the memory lapses and confusion associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Medeiros and Basting argued that limiting cultural-arts invention research to clinical-trial models necessarily downplays benefits such as the programs’ effects on the person’s social network of family and caregivers. “Cultural arts interventions . . . tap into and develop individual potential and social meaning systems to achieve a transformative experience. Pharmacologic interventions do not,” they wrote. “Studies in which a cultural art intervention is assessed in the same way as a pharmacologic invention therefore make little sense.” 

Due to the demanding nature of caring for someone with an impaired memory, caregivers often suffer from feeling isolated and overwhelmed, a side effect that Mindful Connections has helped alleviate since its launch in 2011, organizers and participants said. Partners, paid caretakers, friends, and family members have forged connections and unloaded grievances between statues of wrathful deities and paintings of past masters. As a result, the Rubin created another program, Empowering Caregivers, which offers a tour of the museum and a space for caregivers to reflect in a relaxed setting, and relate to one another. 

Caregivers often visit the museum not expecting to get anything out of the visit, but, to their own surprise, fall in love with the theme or an artwork. “Sometimes, they didn’t even know what type of art we have before they came in. But we’re seeing the impact it has on them,” Sloan explains. 

dementia museum tour
Guides Jeremy McMahan (left) and Laura Sloan lead a Mindful Connections tour. | Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum

Museum docents work closely with Caring Kind, a New York City-based nonprofit that specializes in Alzheimer’s and dementia caregiving, and their special program Connect2Culture to learn the skills they need to help patrons stay focused on the artworks. 

“In regular museum tours, guides usually do a compare-contrast: you look at a peaceful image of the Buddha, you look a wrathful deity, and ask about the differences between the two,” Sloan explained. “But during a Mindful Connections tour, you can’t really reference back to an object. It becomes about focusing less on the content and background of the art, and more on the stories and sensations of the moment.” 

“Nowadays, it’s like ‘mindful’ everything,” Sloan acknowledges. “But the idea [behind the name] was that these tours really do flow into a mindfulness state—you have to focus in on the moment, because these people really are living in the moment.”

Taking guests through three or more artworks, tour guides highlight both contemporary and ancient objects, including thangkas (scroll paintings), sculptures, and textiles. After a brief explanation of each work, the guides open up the tour to audience participation and art-making. 

Sloan and the other guides are armed with a toolkit of items designed to help patrons engage with the art—whether it be through sight, sound, touch, or smell. “We might bring incense or singing bowls, and we carry around miniature stupas guests can hold and look at up close,” Sloan said. “Sometimes, we have them create sculptures of what they’re looking at with molding clay, too.” 

For Sloan, learning to connect directly with people with dementia has been an eye-opening experience. “Something I’ve learned is that people with dementia are communicating with you, even when it’s not verbal, and even if it might seem like an outburst. I’ve learned to read body language and tune in to what’s actually going on.

“And when I get a smile or see someone light up in response to the art—that’s when I feel like this program is making a difference.” 

Further reading: A Buddhist practitioner asks what happens when a mind is aware of its own decline, a hospice chaplain observes the benefits of mindfulness practice for people with fading memories, and writer Caitlin Van Dusen attends a sleepover in the Rubin’s galleries. 

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