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Arts

Dementia patients find their memory through art

Art addresses inherently human themes like love and family. A Berlin museum taps into the power of art and offers specialized tours to help dementia patients get in touch with their memory.

"A little bit louder, I can't understand a darn thing," says an elderly lady. "Let's keep going," another commands from her wheelchair. Museum guide Jaqueline Hoffmann-Neira is feeling a bit unsure of herself. It's the first time she's led a group of dementia patients through the museum.

She has intentionally sought out images that coalesce around a single theme: maternal affection. Madonna with child, from Botticelli or Rafael, is an image that invokes a primal feeling everyone can relate to. And in fact, the picture of a mother and child does seem to awaken memories in the seven visitors.

There is silence, however, when the guide asks who the child is. "Jesus," says Hoffmann-Neira, finally. "Of course, who else?" responds an older, impeccably-dressed gentleman.

Art kindling memory

The guided tours are an experiment put on by Berlin's Gemäldegalerie. Museum tours for those with Alzheimer's or dementia are now common in other German cities. In the capital, which has distinguished itself with many other dementia-friendly initiatives, the idea is novel. The push came from Bettina Held, whose own mother suffers from dementia. The Alzheimer's Association was enthusiastic and Berlin's state museums immediately opened their doors. A training program was set up to prepare the guides for their first tours in mid-September.

Three elderly women in wheelchairs admiring a work of art in a Berlin museum Photo: Andrea Kasiske (FM DW)

It took some practice to find the right approach

The fact that music can instantly evoke memories and emotions in those with dementia is well known. But that images can have a similar effect on the collective and personal memory is not as widely accepted. The Berlin Gemäldegalerie aims to create a space that is relevant to their visitors and where they can participate in the cultural scene.

These tours focus on just a few images that are specially selected for their motives. "Love" and "landscape" are meant to stir up memories or feelings in everyone, including those with dementia. The groups are small so that guides can respond to individual reactions.

Naked love

A woman in a wheelchair calls out, "I can't sit anymore." Her caretaker repositions her. The tour guides have to keep in mind that the trip to the museum can be demanding for the visitors: first the drive to the museum, then the new rooms, and then all those people.

Periodically someone inevitably needs to be accompanied to the restroom. "OK, then let's go ahead and take a quick break," says Jaqueline Hoffmann-Neira, who ends up being followed by the small procession.

Supporting themselves in the arms of the caretakers, the group enters the next room, one-by-one. There, hanging on the wall, is Caravaggio's "Amor." A few snickers can be heard. This particular take on "Amor", with its provocative adolescent nudity, startles the observers.

"When did you first fall in love?" a visitor asks the guide.

This kind of tour is a give and take, concludes Hoffmann-Neira later on. For this group, specifics like dates are left out. The guide says it has been an interesting experience for her as well, even though it was a big adjustment at first.

Feelings, memories, joy

The next group is sitting in the foyer enjoying coffee and cookies. Hoffmann-Neira has learned that it's important for the visitors to arrive slowly and become acquainted with the environment before they begin the tour.  

This time there are just four visitors, two of whom are being cared for by relatives. Margot Zähler is 83 years old, but she's not 100 percent sure about that, she says with a laugh. When it comes to the first image, a painting of Dutch landscapes, she's far more certain. "Water," she responds with conviction to the question of what can be seen on the horizon. She gestures and is wide awake and eager.

The other three visitors also appear to be deep in concentration, although they don't say much.

An elderly woman painting a landscape under the guidance of a museum employee

Not just theoretical: landscape painting at the end of the tour

"I've shown you which details are in the image," says Birgit Bellmann, artist and museum guide. She hopes to appeal to feelings and memories. Above all, she believes, the museum-goers should have fun. In addition to perusing images, Bellmann also includes a hands-on session at the end where participants paint their own landscapes.

Time to go home

Margot Zähler paints a picture of blurred blues, crooked stripes, and a sun. For the others, though, the painting exercise doesn't go as well.

At 92 years old, Marliese Werge is the most elderly in the group. She sits in front of her canvas blankly. Werge enjoyed looking at paintings, but doing it herself is not her cup of tea, she says. She'd like to go home and rest, even if she doesn't exactly know where her house is. But she'd love to come back again, she adds.

After an hour and a half, the visitors are clearly worn out. Just how much the tour guides can expect from them will become clearer with time and experience. Now that the September warm-up is finished, the museum expects to offer these tours regularly.

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