On a recent Thursday at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio in Stafford County, a group of people with early-stage memory loss and their caretakers sat in chairs, gazing at Melchers’ painting, “The Choirmaster.”
The painting depicts a group of choir children practicing in church with their conductor. Light falls on their faces from a stained-glass window as they sing.
Michelle Crow–Dolby, education and communications manager at the Gari Melchers Home and Studio, put on a recording of “Amazing Grace” by then-7-year-old gospel singer Rhema Marvanne.
As Marvanne’s ethereal voice and the familiar lyrics filled the studio, one of the memory-loss patients, Paul Gabler, immediately started nodding his head in perfect time with the music as his wife and caregiver, Andi, clasped his hand.
Afterward, when Crow–Dolby asked the group if anyone had ever sung in a choir, Gabler lifted his hand.
Thursday’s program, Picturing New Connections, was the pilot for what Crow–Dolby hopes can be a regular event for memory-loss patients.
It is based on Meet me at MOMA, a successful art engagement program for Alzheimer’s patients funded by the MetLife Foundation that ran from 2007 to 2014 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
MOMA developed guidelines and principles for developing similar programs at other museums, which Crow–Dolby used in creating hers.
“I’ve been working on this program, off and on, for a few years,” Crow–Dolby said. “I made a trip to New York to see the MOMA program in action and shadowed a few other museums’ programs as well. I now have two binders full of information, notes and ideas.”
The Fredericksburg office of the national Alzheimer’s Association partnered with Gari Melchers Home and Studio to present the program.
“This is a great social event for folks, for caregivers and loved ones,” said Lori Myers, regional Alzheimer’s Association director.
Myers said that just getting out of the house, experiencing new things and talking to different people is beneficial to those with Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“And maybe it’s tapping into people with prior art ability or interest in art,” she said.
Crow–Dolby said she hopes to offer the program on a regular basis.
“I feel strongly about increasing the museum’s accessibility to underserved audiences in an authentic and meaningful way,” she said.
Picturing New Connections has both “art-looking and art-making” components and involves elements of hearing, smell and touch, Crow–Dolby said in her introduction to the program participants.
After experiencing “The Choirmaster,” attendees turned their attention to “Tonsorial Parlor,” a painting Melchers completed toward the end of his life depicting his local barber shop.
“Who has had a haircut in a barber shop?” Crow–Dolby asked. “What did it smell like?”
“Aftershave!” someone responded.
Crow–Dolby passed around bottles of Old Spice aftershave and cups filled with Barbasol shaving cream for guests to smell. She also played a recording of a 1940s commercial for Brylcreem.
“Does it take you back?” she asked.
In the audience, memory-loss patient John Puckett smoothed a dollop of the shaving cream on his cheek. Smiling mischievously, he reached out to put some on his caregiver, Monroe Faulkner.
Faulkner, who has been caring for Puckett several days a week for three years, said Puckett had an illustrious career as a rocket scientist and then owned a local winery.
But these days, “It’s about the now for him,” Faulkner said.
Puckett looks forward to his days with Faulkner, which are full of activities Puckett’s wife arranges for them, and with helping Faulkner with his other clients—something that Puckett is always able to remember from week to week.
“It’s being engaged with and being responsible for something [that is beneficial for memory-care patients],” Myers said.
After experiencing Melchers’ art in the studio, the group got to make art of their own. Using small pieces of colored tissue paper and sticky contact paper, they created panes of stained glass like they had seen in “The Choirmaster.”
At the art table, Blanche Anderson was using her personal Swiss army knife to snip the tissue paper squares into narrower pieces before sticking them carefully in a line. Her husband and caretaker, Mike, said she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year ago.
“She used to be a watercolorist,” he said. “The disease really put a stop to that. We’re working hard to get it back.”