Dementia & Engagement at the Museum

Museums all over the world (the MoMADenver Museum, National Gallery of Australia) are offering special programs for seniors with dementia and caregivers. These range from dementia-only viewing hours of specific pieces of art, to hands-on engagement through art making, tactile experiences with sculpture, to lecture and discussion of shows.

Research has shown that creative engagement with the arts brings better health, fewer visits to the doctor, fewer falls, and a sense of purpose and connection. Engaging with art can enhance quality of life by creating meaning. While art-making is recommended for the highest level of engagement, simply viewing art can be a soothing experience. Verbal discussion of themes in the art or memories that are stirred up by viewing a piece can create connection to the community and the world.

Two parts of the brain are automatically firing when viewing art. The interior insula, connected to pleasant emotions, and the putamen, connected to feeling a sense of reward. Visitors can feel grounded by having their opinions on the art validated and reaffirmed. Viewing art is done in the moment, creating a connection between the viewer and the caregiver.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a wonderful guide here for caregivers of people in various stages of dementia. It’s full of useful advice for making the most of your trip to the museum, including:

  • Spend some time just looking at an object.
  • Ask about the lines, shapes, or colors in the work.
  • Encourage the person to express themselves through gesture and movement as well as in words- for example, try re-creating the pose and facial expression of people depicted in a painting or sculpture.
  • Bring clipboards and draw together in front of an object.

Not sure where to start? Check out the Maine Art Museum Trail, and contact your local gallery to see if they have any special programs for people with dementia. Happy viewing!

Kate Beever

About Kate Beever

I am a board-certified neurologic music therapist and owner of Maine Music & Health, which provides services and consulting to healthcare and arts agencies throughout the state.