Museum Tours Bring Dementia Sufferers Joy, if Not Memories

A growing number of museums in Israel offer special tours designed to engage elderly people with dementia, Alzheimer's and other impairments.

Limor Gal
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Limor Gal

The 10-person group that arrived at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv about a month ago looked like any group of retirees. They were well dressed and attentive. Some of them carried daypacks, some of the women wore makeup and one man had several cameras slung over his shoulder. They perused the artwork, listened to the tour guide and offered reactions.

It would have been easy to miss that about half the visitors suffer from memory-related disorders and were visiting the museum with caregivers, spouses or adult children as part of a program run by Emda, a nonprofit organization for people suffering from dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and other similar disorders.

The program, which Emda brought to Israel three years ago, began about a decade ago at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and has since been adopted by other museums around the world. In Israel, 11 museums have joined the program, including the Museum of Israeli Art in Ramat Gan, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Hecht Museum in Haifa and the Pioneer Settlement Museum on Kibbutz Yifat. This month, the staffs of ten more museums in the north will take courses to prepare to join the program.

Gary Roth, the director of Emda, says, “When I saw a photograph of a dementia patient smiling after a tour of MoMA, I decided to import the project to Israel.”

The trips are specially tailored to the participants. They typically focus on exhibitions that the participants can relate to, last about an hour and worry little about art education.

“The patients’ short-term memory has been affected, so there is no sense in trying to accumulate knowledge about art during the tour,” says Nati Blum, who manages the project for Emda. “They’re given the opportunity to contemplate and experience and the goal is also that they enjoy quality time together and connect with their older memories.”

Most participants are fairly independent people, since the groups come from elderly day centers, as opposed to residential facilities. One of the program’s goals is to lessen the stigma of the diseases and expose the public to patients who can function.

A shared past

At the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, the patients tour exhibitions that allow them to connect with their early memories. One exhibition, "Images from the Land of the Bible," features images of Israel from the beginning of the twentieth century, including photographs of landscapes and people taken by members of the American Colony at the time. Standing in front of a photograph of a female shepherd, a woman turns to her mother, a woman in her seventies who used to work as a shepherd herself.

“What did the sheep sound like?” the woman asks, prompting her mother to laugh and then demonstrate.

“Do you remember where you worked?” the guide from the day center, Irit Otmazgin Nahar, asks. She then sings a few lines from the famous Israeli folk song, "Song of the Valley," hoping to remind the old woman of her life in the Jezreel Valley.

Another photograph depicting an olive harvest prompts one of the participants to enthusiastically recount how he used to harvest the fruit as a young man.

After the guide gives a little background on the photographs, many of which are related to agriculture, the participants are asked more concrete questions about themselves: “Which of you worked in agriculture? Did any of you ever have the experience of drinking water from a well?”

“Touching and surprising things happen on every tour,” says Michal Warshavsky, the coordinator of continuing education at the Eretz Israel Museum. “In one of the tours at the ethnography and folklore booth, one participant saw a cup used for Havdalah [the Jewish ceremony marking the conclusion of Shabbat] and remembered how her father used to conduct the Havdalah ceremony at their home every Saturday night. Her son, who was with her on the tour, was surprised and touched along with her. At one of the historical photography exhibitions, one of the participants lifted up her cane and demonstrated the sign language that she and her fellow soldiers had used during the War of Independence. Her daughter, who was with her, was very moved.”

Another project by Emda, On the Couch with Picasso, tries to bring art to patients’ homes or community day centers. The project’s kit, which includes prints of 50 paintings on cards and compact disc, offers various activities by subject.

“We measure success in tiny increments,” says Blum. “If we’ve given them an hour of fun and a smile, even if they don’t really remember it afterward, that’s good enough for us.”

Inbal, a Tel Aviv woman who accompanied her mother to the museum, agrees. “Sometimes I feel that going with mother is a bit like dealing with a child,” she says. “We’re always looking for things that will attract her and keep her busy. So this kind of visit to a museum gives her a good time for an hour, and that’s nice even if she forgets it later.”

Malka, an artist from Ramat Gan, went on the tour with her 81-year-old husband. “We always went to cultural events, and we keep on going now too,” she says.

“He always likes going out, meeting people and going places. On the way back, he may even remember the visit to the museum. A few days later, he won’t. But the experience is good for him and he enjoys it. In any case, when you’re busy, there’s less time to think about being sick.”

More museums in Israel are offering guided tours for dementia patients.Credit: Hadar Cohen



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