ADVERTISEMENT

Museum programs aims at enriching seniors

  • Article by: SHEREEN SIEWERT
  • Associated Press
  • April 7, 2014 - 12:05 AM

WAUSAU, Wis. — On a typical day at the Woodson Art Museum, wide-eyed children explore colorful exhibits and hands-on activities while bird art enthusiasts wander the museum's quieter hallways.

But the museum is not only for children and lovers of nature art. One day this past week, six seniors, all struggling with mild to moderate memory loss, were led through art critiques and projects during SPARK!, a monthly innovative program that aims to provide seniors with an avenue for self-expression, mental stimulation and a positive social outlet. The participants, all from North Central Health Care's Legacies by the Lake program in Wausau, were each paired with a volunteer to guide them through the 90-minute program.

"These are such joyful, uplifting experiences," said Jayna Hintz, curator of education at the museum. "This is not about trying to bring memory back, but to create new memories. It's about being in the moment."

The museum is one 10 in Wisconsin and Minnesota that have implemented SPARK! and have formed an alliance to learn from one another and share best practices, Daily Herald Media reported. In Wausau, participants begin by analyzing works of art and end by creating their own. During the program this past week, participants wrote poems to accompany the images they saw.

A print depicting a "wing walker" — a man who stood on the wing of an airplane while in flight — prompted one man to recall the jets he rode in while fighting in the Korean War. The same image reminded 87-year-old Alvina Rowe to recall a daring trip she took decades ago in Alabama, in a glider plane with no engine.

And when Gwen Carey, the volunteer who led the session, explained that the wing walker in the print was an accomplished dance teacher, Hintz played a recording of a waltz that opened the door to a flood of emotions. Toes began to tap, and one woman, Sharon Preus, began to cry.

"Such beautiful music," Preus said. "I used to love to dance."

The music is part of what Hintz calls a "multisensory experience" that brings artwork to life and encourages both emotion and conversation.

"People who participate react in so many different ways," Hintz said. "Some share a memory sparked by the artwork, which is where the name comes from. Others share information about themselves. Some burst into song. It's really quite amazing."

The SPARK! Alliance takes its cues from the Meet Me at MoMA program held at New York's Museum of Modern Art, a program in which trained educators engage those with Alzheimer's and their caregivers in discussions about works of art. The MoMA program was launched after researchers at New York University found that art can stimulate memory and have positive effects on mood, said Hintz, who received SPARK! training at MoMA in 2009.

The benefits include sustained alertness and awareness of their surroundings for hours or days after the visits, said Amy Beck, marketing coordinator at the Woodson.

Rowe, who attends SPARK! sessions regularly, said the best thing about the program is the camaraderie among the people who attend and the volunteers who assist them.

"It is a great day of shared memories," Rowe said.

© 2014 Star Tribune