By the time we were halfway through the Contemporary Journeys workshop hosted on the 30th of June, tour guides and Walker staff had heard a brief history of the Walker’s Contemporary Journeys program. They’d heard a rundown on tour etiquette and heartwarming stories of Ilene’s Art Lab sessions. But the question remained: would we hear the perspective of someone who centers her whole job on helping people with Alzheimer’s through art?
Luckily for us, the answer was a resounding ‘yes’. Sara Tucker, our third speaker, has spent numerous years of her life doing just that. As an art therapist who spearheaded the Art Institute of Chicago’s program for people with memory loss, she tirelessly strives to help people with Alzheimer’s cope with their condition through the viewing and creation of art.
Sara’s practice is nuanced and fascinating. Displaying a deep understanding of the Alzheimer’s disease, it’s an emotionally intuitive mix of memory priming through sensory stimulation as well as group art-making sessions. Oh how it pains me to make the former sound like a quote from one of my dreary psychology textbooks. The idea itself is anything but boring- it’s a simple but beautiful activity that does a great job of reaching out to its audience. So what is it exactly? Here’s an example that will hopefully tell you all you need to know. To help participants recall their memories, Sara shows them a photo of a woman accompanied by the sound of laughter, or a wall of ‘smells’ where one can sniff an array of labeled objects. Pinpoints of recollection spark to life and bloom into stories.
Something I found impressive about her therapeutic process was the strong emphasis on fostering group connections. Sadly, Alzheimer’s, like many other mental conditions, can severely alienate one from others and give rise to a debilitating feeling of irrelevance to society. Sara’s brand of group art-making sessions confronts that problem head on. A considerable number of her projects allowed participants to craft individual pieces, eventually combining them into one large, cohesive piece. As she said, “connecting with people is an incredible health benefit”. But that’s not all. Knowing that an increased sense of self-worth is one of the fundamental sources of happiness, Sara takes care to make participants feel like they’ve succeeded at what they’ve done. I couldn’t help but wish that some of my elementary school teachers had grasped that concept instead of, you know, my right ear.
A little later on, the talk moved on to the subject of choices. The prospect of too many, Sara pointed out, can be quite stressful. Therefore, it’s important to ask fewer open-ended questions and instead pose ones where the array of possible answers is more limited. Also, acknowledging the opinions of people with Alzheimer’s and following their train of thought instead of bending them towards your own is just as vital. Patience and respect are key.
The workshop didn’t end with Sara’s presentation. We had five special Walker tour guides with us who had extensive experience giving tours to people with Alzheimer’s, and they weren’t going to close the session without putting their formidable arsenal of knowledge to work. Claudia Swager, Tina Daniels Rivkin, Kay Ehrhart, Jane Mercier, and Caroline Lappin headed an illuminating Q&A session with helpful input from previous speakers Courtney Gerber, Ilene Krug Mojsilov and Sara Tucker. I think we’ve all had it up to here with paragraphs, so I’m going to lay a summarized version out for everyone a little differently.
Q: What do you do when somebody gets really angry or upset, or when you sense a negative feeling rising? How do you deal with that?
A: If you notice someone becoming upset, try to help them step away from the situation that is evoking this feeling. For instance, ask: “Do you want to take a walk and see this piece with me?”. Taking that walk might be just about all you have to do. Hear them out. Also, it’s useful to have an extra guide or two along to help observe reactions and assuage negative emotions.
Q: How should we address our Contemporary Journeys audience?
A: It depends on the person. In the cases of some people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, using the phrase ‘mild cognitive impairment’ may be preferable, but in general it is acceptable to address them as ‘people with Alzheimer’s’. Acknowledging them as people instead of patients is important, so always use person-first language.
Q: How should we choose pieces for the Contemporary Journeys tours?
A: Having a mix of work is a good idea, so if one direction doesn’t work out you have something else to which to resort. It’s also important to have your pieces within close proximity. If you are guiding people with mid-stage Alzheimer’s, consider using props in the tour and including more images that have a high visual contrast (for instance: black and white images) as less detail can be less stress-inducing.
And last but not least,
Q: How do you establish emotionally fulfilling relationships in a few visits?
A: Through asking questions and gaining valuable insight into who your audience is, through using props to bring the abstract down to the realm of the tangible and physically familiar. In short, through always trying to reach out.
When the questions had died down, Ilene sprang up and called everyone’s attention to the front of the room. “That’s right ladies,” said the twinkle in her eye. “It’s time to make some art.” The name of the game? Sell-Out, inspired by consumerism and Andy Warhol’s body of work. How do you play it? Design a can of anything you want. Unfortunately, it fell upon my shoulders to photograph the activity, so my life-long dream of making a can of bacon-flavored soda was dashed to pieces. But from the demise of an interesting albeit totally unmarketable idea, at least you get some nice photos of the great time we all had!
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To get a better idea of what happened earlier on in the workshop, check out Contemporary Journeys Workshop: Part One!