People, art supplies, and artwork connected by computer, phone, tablet screens, online community, smile, art program. Seniors

Dementia Unplugged™: ARTFul Insights™

In 2020, the Dementia Society of America® expanded its long-standing Dementia Unplugged™ programming to include its ARTFul Insights™ initiative, funding the exceptional ARTZ Philadelphia team to plan and produce it. Dementia Unplugged™: ARTFul Insights™ is an online program focused on making art accessible to those living with dementia.

The AlzheimersDisease.net team spoke with:

  • Shane Farrell, digital projects and programs manager at ARTZ Philadelphia
  • Justine Stehle, ARTFul Insights™ program facilitator
  • Kevin Jameson, volunteer, founder, president, CEO, and chairman of the Dementia Society of America®

Together, we discussed what goes into the program and what participants can expect when they choose to attend!

About ARTFul Insights™

What is the primary purpose of this program for people living with dementia and their family/care partners?

Our programs are really about quality of life. We want to build a space where people can experience joy and find comfort, where it is clear that they have just as much to contribute to a discussion as anyone else. A space where they can feel free to explore and express themselves without judgment.

Our programs are based on a lot of research about creativity, art, music, dementia (and much more). We know that these kinds of activities are really beneficial for people living with dementia. Engaging that creative part of the brain can help. But having joyful experiences with art is also part of a full life.

Ultimately, that's what we want – we want people living with dementia to live the full lives they deserve.

Structuring the sessions

We watched some of your sessions. Facilitators are intentional with how they conduct sessions to not be too overwhelming. Can you talk to us more about how you structure this program and engagement to be "dementia-friendly"? How do you make this accessible to those living with dementia? How are you facilitating meaningful engagement during these sessions?

Shane

First of all, we make it very clear that there are no wrong answers. There can be a lot of anxiety and apprehension among people living with dementia about saying "the wrong thing." But we think this is the wrong attitude altogether.

We try to have a "yes and" approach to things. We build an environment where it's obvious from the beginning that anything someone wants to share is welcome. We let the conversation go where it may. And we put a lot of effort into ensuring each participant gets the attention they need while also maintaining an awareness that not everyone will want to be as vocal.

Groups are kept small and intimate so that we're really able to give everyone that individual attention. We also get to know our participants very well. When someone comes to our programs, they usually return for quite a while. We get to know what works for each person, what specific interests they have, what challenges they might face, and so on.

We know there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so treating each participant as an individual is key. We even try to get some basic information from new participants before they attend a program through our new participant survey so they can feel at home right away.

Justine

As a facilitator, I try to have a playful, warm, and open spirit that welcomes humor and engagement. I begin by waving and saying hello to everyone. We each take a few moments to introduce ourselves. Maybe we add where we are joining from. This way, we create an immediate sense of community. Then we can begin to feel safe together.

As Shane said, our main goal is for the participants to feel comfortable and safe expressing themselves freely. Often it's in a way that's fun and joyful. We welcome humor! We welcome and accept people to come as they are. If someone would prefer to say nothing or very little, that's fine. We've even had participants sleep during much of the session. And later we hear that they awoke and had much to say about the art. We understand and believe creating an accepting and safe space for all is imperative.

By discussing the artwork displayed before us, we each make observations:

  • What we see and notice
  • What we like or don't like so much
  • What memories or feelings the work evokes in us
  • The choices the artist made

As a result, we feel a deeper understanding of the artwork and one another.

I encourage participants to talk with one another, ask and answer each other's questions, and connect. Everyone's voice is heard and valued, and all responses are included in our discussion. It's really tremendous fun!

We learn a lot on many levels by taking the time to look closely at art together. Over and over again, participants remark on how much they delight in hearing the observations and perspectives of others. Many say that deepens their own experience with the artwork. Ultimately, the participants leave our programs with feelings of connection, acceptance, and shared community.

"Visiting" new museums

How do you choose the museums to "visit" and the works of art for discussion? Is there any rhyme or reason behind it?

A few factors go into this. Some are basic things like trying to keep the program's content diverse. We've looked at everything from very traditional figurative oil paintings to comic strips. And all sorts of things in between!

There are some basic visual concerns when we select artwork. For example, what will be legible to people – including those who may have vision issues – on a computer screen? But outside of that, we try to be open to any kind of artwork.

We really believe we can have a good discussion about any work of art. We also want the museums we visit to be in all parts of the country. That way, we can introduce our participants to a great diversity of different museums.

We often seek out museums that either have a pre-existing program for people living with dementia or a strong focus on accessibility. Working with museums that understand where we are coming from and what we are trying to accomplish can be very helpful. That being said, we're also very happy to help introduce museums to these accessibility discussions. We can help them explore programming like ours for the first time.

We want to see a world where every museum is hyper-accessible to people living with dementia and their care partners. Being an ambassador for this work is a great opportunity to spread that message. We give people a starting point to think about these issues.

The magic of our participants

Collectively, what is your favorite part of this program? What gets you excited about recording a new session or hosting at a new museum?

Our participants are always the thing that gets me most excited about our programs. We love hearing what they say and seeing where they take the discussion. It's great to watch people explore freely. It's always nice to see a new participant who may have been hesitant initially get into it as the program progresses.

Of course, it's always fun to see different artworks from different places all around the country. But the most exciting thing for me is the conversations that the artworks create and the joy they inspire.

Looking to learn more?

Where can people learn more about Dementia Unplugged™: ARTFul Insights™?

People can learn more at our website. They can also learn more by watching some of the videos on our YouTube channel or the Dementia Society of America's® YouTube channel.

We've also recently released a video in our Conversations about Change series. It's an interview with Kevin Jameson, our partner at the Dementia Society of America®. The interview gives insight into our partnership and our organization as a whole.

Anyone who is interested in the program, whether as a participant or as a museum host, should feel free to reach out to contact@AlzheimersDisease.net to get connected!

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The AlzheimersDisease.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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