AUGUST 11, 2017
This summer, a choir of nonprofessional singers with dementia performed its 23rd concert at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City. Founded in 2011, the Unforgettables learn new songs for each performance—even though many can’t remember what they ate for breakfast.
Creative pursuits like singing and other expressive arts—including dance, improv, playing music and puppetry—are bringing new life to people with Alzheimer’s and related diseases, even those who were never “artsy” before.
“It’s the cultural cure,” says Anne Basting, a gerontologist and theater arts professor at the University of Wisconsin who won a MacArthur fellowship “genius” grant last year for her work in this area, including the imagination-based storytelling method called TimeSlips. The arts bring people out of isolation, give them a sense of connection and improve their communication. “People with dementia are living in a world of metaphor and we just need to move into it,” Basting says.
—In Durham, North Carolina, the Nasher Museum of Art hosted a three-day conference for museum professionals on art programs for people with dementia. “It’s joyful, not stressful,” says participant Debby Greenwood. “You can see so many things in art—and there are no wrong answers.” More than 100 museums now offer such programs.
—In Wisconsin, the state’s new poet laureate, Karla Huston, is on a mission to bring poetry—hearing it, reciting it, writing it—to Memory Cafés (a kind of social support group for people with dementia).
—A Chicago acting class teaches improvisation techniques to those with memory loss. “Improv requires you to be in the moment,” says Memory Ensemble co-founder Christine Dunford of Lookingglass Theatre Company. One technique called “yes, and” encourages you to accept whatever your partner says as a way to smooth over frustrating situations, e.g., “Yes, I put my keys in the fridge, and now they’re cold!”
Flipping the Switch
Dementia alters specific parts of the brain differently. It can bring “right brain” creative impulses that have always been present, but dormant, to the fore, research has found. At the same time, some people lose the inhibitions and “judgy” parts of the brain that once might have silenced their inner artist. And the arts can still tap deep emotions. Dementia patients “lose something, but they find something else,” says Mary Mittelman, a research professor at New York University and founder of the Unforgettables.
“Different parts of the brain can still be accessed—you just have to find what they connect to,” says Berna Huebner, who co-directed the groundbreaking documentary I Remember Better When I Paint, which features her own mother.
“Her lights are off” is how a doctor described a sullen, withdrawn Hilda Gorenstein. Huebner suggested her mom try painting, an abandoned old love. “Yes, I remember better when I paint,” she replied—and went on to create hundreds of amazing canvases.