Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part One
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Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part One

As you already know, efforts to heighten the Walker’s accessibility to the deaf or hard-of-hearing are already operating under full steam. But what about those who face a very different set of obstacles? How about those whose difficulties transcend the realm of the sensory, reaching far into that of the cognitive?

Don’t worry – the Walker is on it. It’s true that interacting with people with Alzheimer’s can present itself as an intimidating situation to many, even to those who are no strangers to the idea. The awareness that entering the complex reality of these individuals requires a different plane of sensitivity, coupled with the fear of doing something clumsy and hurtful, can nip the noblest of endeavors in the bud. Here at the Walker, we acknowledge this predicament, and understand that what helps to assuage these fears is some in-depth guidance from the experienced and savvy. So to show our tour guides how to work with people with Alzheimer’s or dementia, the Walker held the Contemporary Journeys workshop for tour guides and administrative staff alike on the 30th of June.

Courtney Gerber, the assistant director of Education and Community Programs, began the event by giving us a short history of the Walker’s Contemporary Journeys program, in which volunteers took people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s along with their care partners on tours and art lab sessions. Said volunteers were trained by the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Alzheimer’s Association and local memory care professionals, meeting with their groups regularly over a period of two months. Before someone in the audience exclaims ‘Two months?! Oh come on!’, let me assure you that something good did bloom from our efforts. Despite the time constraints, tour groups managed to form intimate bonds with their tour guides and fellow participants, ones which became fertile ground for enriching interactions and discussions.

Of course, anyone can tell you that careening excitedly down a path without knowing where it’s heading never ends well. With this in mind, the Walker hired Dr. Joseph Gaugler from the University of Minnesota to give the program a solid six-month evaluation on whether it was having positive effects on the wellbeing of the patrons with Alzheimer’s and their care partners while at the Walker and outside of its walls.

Meticulously illustrating the similarities and differences between conducting typical adult group tours and Contemporary Journey tours, Courtney clarified that the world of abstract and conceptual art isn’t necessarily off-limits. One can still render it intellectually accessible just by making one’s related questions less abstract and more concrete. In fact, it is considered disrespectful to omit art-related information based on the assumption that patrons with Alzheimer’s cannot digest it. “Depending on where they are on the spectrum of memory loss, they might want to hear about it from you,” said Courtney.

As for the art itself? Tour guides are encouraged to help patrons find its relevance to their own personal experiences. Definitely a point that struck a chord. After all, finding how and where a piece of art fits into one’s own life story can be one of the most powerful forms of appreciation.

But while it’s good to avoid over-thinking one’s etiquette when giving tours to people with Alzheimer’s, there is one major don’t to keep in mind. Priming, a commonly-employed conversational tool, is not such a good idea. For instance, asking questions like “Remember when I said this?” can cause considerable emotional stress for people with Alzheimer’s, as they might not be able to recall the information but feel pressured to do so anyway. It’s also crucial to remember that they may respond to the art in ways different from what one is used to. Sometimes a silent smile and nod will replace a verbal response. Sometimes opinions will be repeated. However, one shouldn’t brush these forms of input aside and instead integrate them into the course of the tour. “And remember to keep group sizes small,” Courtney reminded, as a greater feeling of intimacy is a wonderful catalyst for group interaction.

Leaping in to talk about the Art Lab was Ilene Mojsilov, the Art Lab Coordinator. One look at our taut, pale faces and she probably figured that we were a little overwhelmed by the myriad logistical concerns combined with subzero air-conditioning. To warm us over a little, she shared some truly inspiring anecdotes of her art lab experiences involving patrons with Alzheimer’s. Taking on the role as a guiding presence rather than a dictating one, Ilene tried to help participants with Alzheimer’s find their own preferences and artistic direction instead of instructing them every step of the way. If someone had difficulty using the materials, the staff was encouraged to take this setback as an opportunity to talk about aesthetic choices.

The results were incredible. In one art lab session, a patron who works with the St Paul Public Library took a fresh and exciting spin on a collage, introducing sculptural elements into her work. In another during which participants made their own ‘dime store box’, a participant transformed her piece into a beautiful exploration of color-layering. “The possibilities are endless,” the stories seemed to say. Ilene herself noted that the Art Lab session did wonders for building self-esteem by discovering or revisiting positive qualities in the patrons while helping them reconnect to other members of society.

Despite the rapid onset of frostbite, I was really moved by the underlying sentiment of Ilene’s observation. It’s true that when it comes to considering a condition of such overwhelming magnitude, it can be so easy to equate the person to the disease. But Ilene’s endeavors reminded us that her patrons are so much more than the illness with which they are grappling. Even though their behaviors change, the complexity and profundity of their personalities do not necessarily disappear. The advent of Alzheimer’s does not make a person any less of an individual.

So as you can see, the workshop presented us with no shortage of stories and ideas from Walker insiders. But we didn’t want to end the event without hearing from someone who has dedicated her entire career to helping people with Alzheimer’s through art.

That is where Sara Tucker from Chicago comes into the picture.

Stay tuned for Sara’s experiences as an art therapist working with people with Alzheimer’s, an enlightening Q&A session with three tour guides who conducted Contemporary Journeys tours, followed by an Art Lab session which spawned, among other things, a can of spam! Part Two will be up next Thursday (7/29/10).

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