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Art resonates with Alzheimer's patients in Kemper program

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2012After a dozen or so years of marriage, Virginia Benson’s vibrant husband George started asking strange questions.

“What did we do yesterday? We’re going somewhere today -- do I know the people?” Virginia Benson remembered.

Details about recent events began to elude George Benson, 87, a psychoanalyst, pilot and pianist, but he held onto memories of his parents, brothers and the army years, and to his love of the arts. When Virginia Benson, 77, heard about the Kemper Art Reaches Everyone (KARE) program for early-onset to moderate Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers last year, the downtown St. Louis resident scheduled it as one of their weekly excursions.

“We had a wonderful time,” Virginia Benson said. “It was very pleasurable for him, and I enjoyed seeing him enjoy it.”

Inspired by MoMA

Efforts involving art and seniors are the speciality of St. Louis’ Lynn Hamilton, whose Maturity and Its Museorganization encourages productive aging through the arts. When Hamilton heard of an arts and Alzheimer’s program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, she approached the Kemper with the idea.

“It’s been a wildly successful program at MoMA. I decided it was something we could do in St. Louis,” Hamilton said.

The concept clicked immediately with Kemper’s manager of education programs Allison Taylor, who was then on her second day in the job. Taylor wanted to add additional components to KARE that would get participants moving and also encourage them to make their own art.

After several pilot programs, KARE officially launched last Monday.

At the start of the event, a dozen or so people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers stretched their arms and slapped their legs along with dancer and movement therapist Alice Bloch, referencing activities in two 19th-century Old-West paintings.

Next, Taylor stepped in, pointing to George Caleb Bingham’s “Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap” and Charles Ferdinand Wimar’s “The Buffalo Hunt.” With her soft, North Carolina accent, Taylor gently encouraged participants to talk about what they saw and imagined. Memories began to emerge.

"Once in a while, I think I was on a horse and it's fun," one recalled.

“I had a small pony when I was a kid,” another remembered.

Inviting them to engage the five senses, Taylor asked: “If you were this Native American right here, what would you be hearing?”

“The arrows flying through the air,” one said.

“They would be crying out, calling out, yelling,” another answered.

Large, literal depictions like these paintings are ideal for the KARE program and its goals, Taylor said. “They work the best because they are telling a story that may relate to people’s lives.”

Creativity remains after language loss

Stimulating sight, sound, touch, hearing and smell can create meaningful experiences for those with Alzheimer's, according to Brian Carpenter, Washington University associate professor of psychology and a consultant for the KARE program.

“Part of the strategy is to help people stay in touch with whatever capabilities are preserved for them. Dementia has different effects on different people,” Carpenter said. “So what Allison and Alice are trying to accomplish is to ask broad questions, to have lots of different kinds of activities so that each participant will have something he or she can respond to.”

KARE is one of several area programs using the arts to engage people with Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association offers a once-a-month "memory drumming" percussion group, and has worked with the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts and the St. Louis Art Museum on past and pilot programs for people with memory loss.

Local activities, some of which can be found by calling the Alzheimer's Association at 1-800-272-3900, involve writing plays, composing songs and storytelling.

“These different kinds of ways of being creative and expressing yourself may be preserved well beyond the stage where a person's linguistic skills may be starting to deteriorate,” Carpenter said. “Music, art and movement are things we learned at a very young age and they don’t require the same kind of sophisticated brain skills as linguistics.”

Knowing this on a personal level, Virginia Benson makes sure she and her husband enjoy a wide variety of arts activities.

“We’re going to the art museum tomorrow morning, we do Opera Theatre and the Symphony, and we went to History Museum to see the underwear exhibit,” Benson said. “It really doesn't matter so much if there's a deep intellectual connection; if there is a kind of visceral response, that’s good enough.”

The next KARE session takes place Monday, Oct. 1.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.