Fran sat in her wheelchair gazing at a modern Impressionist oil painting of a street scene in Paris. “Rainy Day – Notre Dame” isn’t a famous piece—it’s not even certain who painted it. Even so, Fran seemed to connect with the painting. Susan Shifrin wanted to know why.
At almost 90 years old, Fran’s dementia had stolen her memories and relegated her to the Parkhouse Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Royersford. And on that day in 2012, she was at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College as part of a pilot project organized by Shifrin, then the museum’s associate director for education. For years, Parkhouse had been bringing independent and assisted-living residents to the Berman, something Shifrin advocated.
“One of my particular passions was to make visitors—regardless of age or disability—feel welcome, comfortable and engaged in museum settings,” says Shifrin. “Art should be accessible to everyone.”
Initially, when a Parkhouse social worker asked if the museum could accommodate those with dementia, Shifrin hesitated. She was initially concerned about the inadvertent harm that might come to people living with dementia by creating an impromptu program without proper training to enhance sensitivity to particular needs.
Shifrin’s mother suffered from dementia. “I experienced all of the fears and not knowing what to do to help her,” she says. “I also experienced the frustration and sadness of watching a loved one slip away.”
Dementia is one of the most prevalent diseases in America. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5.7 million Americans live with it. Alzheimer’s is only one of the many forms of dementia, all of which destroy memory, language and judgment.
Shifrin created Berman’s pilot project with the hope that museum outings would be pleasurable—and possibly beneficial— for Parkhouse’s dementia patients. That’s how Fran ended up in front of “Rainy Day – Notre Dame.” As Shifrin listened, Fran talked about her career as a high school art teacher and the years she spent painting in Paris. She remembered everything. “Dementia patients often have trouble speaking, but Fran went on and on about being a young woman artist in Paris,” Shifrin says. “It was remarkable.”
Inspired by Fran’s experience, Shifrin created ARTZ Philadelphia, a nonprofit that, in the past five years, has hosted art-related programs for dementia patients from 15 facilities, several in the Main Line area. Art talks and art-making events have been held at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, Woodmere Art Museum, Main Line Art Center, the Barnes Foundation and Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens.
Thomas Scurto-Davis, executive director of MLAC, loves seeing ARTZ Philadelphia’s participants connect with paintings, sculpture and other works. “I don’t know the neurology of dementia, but it seems that, as executive function deteriorates, creative function strengthens,” he says. “Maybe when the brain isn’t burdened with cognitive processing like memory and language, the left brain’s creativity is liberated. Perhaps it’s like that. I hope so, because that’s a great mental place to be.”
Shifrin agrees—so much so that she wants physicians to witness art’s impact on dementia patients. In 2016, she launched a program at Thomas Jefferson University’s Sidney Kimmel Medical College, where medical students attend ARTZ Philadelphia programs and sit with dementia patients while they view various pieces of art. Students are mentored by people living with dementia and their care partners. They get to know each other as human beings, first and foremost. The interactions unlock language and memories in many dementia patients—something medical students would never see in a doctor’s offices and other clinical settings. “The students learn to see the people behind the disease,” Shifrin says. “They usually confess that they thought about dementia as a set of symptoms. But when they sit and talk with patients about art, dementia is nowhere in the room. Yes, they have dementia, but these are not absent people. They are creative, imaginative and brave.”
Shifrin, along with Scurto-Davis and leaders of other local art institutions, recently created a consortium to seek funding that will expand ARTZ Philadelphia’s programming for dementia patients. “We tend to diminish them as people, but I’ve seen first-hand that, through art, there is unbelievable expression and growth,” says Scurto-Davis. “I can’t explain the science behind it, but I know for sure that, to this population, art matters.”