Finding Joy in the Moment
It started as a one-time visit to Carnegie Museum of Art by a special group of elderly visitors. Two years and many meaningful moments later, the museum plans to expand its offerings to people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.
By Betsy Momich
Docent Kathe Patrinos gives a special tour to visitors from Wodside Place, each of whom is living eith Alzheimer's.
Every month, Carnegie Museum of Art docent Kathe Patrinos gives a special tour to a small group of elderly visitors from Presbyterian SeniorCare’s Woodside Place. She talks and smiles, and on good days her visitors talk and smile, too—about what they see in the art and sometimes even about the memories the art invokes. Then her visitors leave, and most won’t remember their visit.
And that’s okay, says Mary Ann Perkins, education associate for student and adult tours at Carnegie Museum of Art. “These visits create so many positive moments for everyone involved,” she notes. “That’s why we call this program ‘In the Moment.’”
Two years ago, Perkins received a call from Kara Berringer, the art therapist at Woodside Place, who simply wanted to know if she and a group of about six residents—all with Alzheimer’s disease—would be welcomed at the museum. The museum’s response since that time has overwhelmed her.
“Finding places where these individuals can feel accepted and comfortable is difficult,” Berringer explains. “Their behavior can be odd, and there’s such a stigma around it. But Mary Ann embraced the idea from the first moment I spoke with her. I was shocked! And she never looked back.”
Perkins admits she wasn’t certain what saying yes to the group would mean. “Our docents often serve special-needs groups, but this was new to us,” she says. “We all entered into this with an open mind, and an understanding with Woodside Place staff that it would be a collaborative learning experience. And the experience has surpassed all of our expectations.”
One visit led to another. And another. In addition to Perkins, who accompanies the group every time they visit, the other constant has been the group’s warm, vivacious, and 100-percent-committed docent, Kathe Patrinos.
“We have a docent from the heavens!” Berringer exclaims. “She solicits all these responses from our residents, some of whom rarely speak anymore. I just stare in disbelief. The beautiful part of this program is that nobody mentions the word dementia. It’s all about the art, and they can all connect to that—nobody’s sick, nobody’s different.”
Patrinos admits she almost always goes home with a “heavy heart” after her tour with the Woodside residents, whom she and Perkins have grown to love. “I just can’t seem to walk away from it,” she says. “And I really have such an admiration for the people who care for them.”
She knows she’s making a difference, though. “My joy is hearing that a family member was so excited because their loved one has, in some way, communicated about being at the museum that day; or that their mood was better for having visited.”
Berringer reports that the daughter of Virginia Tata, a Woodside resident and a regular visitor on the special Museum of Art tours, has twice made a point of telling her how “alert and bright-eyed” her mother was when she saw her after her museum visits. “She visits her mother in the evenings,” Berringer explains, “and she couldn’t believe that her mother wanted to take a walk—twice—which isn’t typical behavior for her. She was so happy her mom had a wonderful evening that she e-mailed her entire family.
“These moments are all these loved ones have to go on,” she adds. “They have to fill up their hearts on them, and then hope for the next ones.”
Carnegie Museum of Art is hoping to create many more good moments for people with Alzheimer’s and their loved ones when the museum expands its customized experiences next year. The museum will be modeling its programming after the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA’s) much-lauded “Meet Me at MoMA,” which are monthly, interactive gallery tours for individuals with Alzheimer’s and their families or professional caregivers. MoMA was one of the first museums in the country to make its collection and special exhibitions accessible to people with dementia, and now, through its Alzheimer’s Project, MoMA professionals are helping other museums craft similar programs.
To kick off its expanded programming, this December Carnegie Museum of Art is hosting a half-day workshop led by professionals from MoMA, the University of Pittsburgh Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, and the Greater Pittsburgh Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Perkins is excited about how the museum is embracing the “In the Moment” project. “With a program like this, we have the opportunity to make someone’s life better, for moments at a time,” she says. “Their lives are so complicated, and for the people who care for them, it’s so, so hard. We can help them cope. And what better place to do it? You come into these galleries, and it’s just awesome!
“Yes, it’s time-consuming,” she adds. “But it’s something we know we should be doing. And, yes, sometimes they respond and sometimes they don’t. And that’s okay.”A few months ago, a member of the Woodside group gave one of those rare responses that Patrinos won’t soon forget. The group was on what Patrinos calls her “hats off to art” tour. She usually picks a simple theme for each visit and this one was all about hats.
“We were looking at a painting by Mary Cassatt that includes a woman wearing a hat, and we started talking about it,” she recounts. “All of a sudden, something just clicked for a member of the group, and she started talking about the materials in the dress and the fabric in the hat. It turns out that, years ago, she used to be a buyer for Gimbel’s department stores, and some of those memories had suddenly come back to her.”
For more information about Carnegie Museum of Art’s “In the Moment” programming, call 412.578.2560.