MINNEAPOLIS – The docent didn’t point out the brush strokes in the oil painting hanging in the Minneapolis Institute of Art. She didn’t talk about the artist other than to give his name, or ask her group to consider his influences or skills or medium.
Instead, as seven dementia patients and their caregivers studied “Winter Landscape,” docent Grace Goggin asked them what activities they could remember doing in the snow. When one patient’s wife said “shovel,” most of the group smiled and laughed.
It was a simple reaction, but it represented a brief opening of a window that’s often shut by permanent memory loss.
On the institute’s “Discover Your Story” tours, art history takes a back seat to the feelings the works elicit, the recollections they might bring to the surface.
The museum was one of the earliest in the state to adopt tours tailored to people with Alzheimer’s, following a model launched by the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since then, museums and other cultural institutions in Minnesota – from the Mill City Museum in Minneapolis to the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona – have rapidly expanded their programs for people with memory loss.
Their efforts are part of a movement by museums across the country to maintain their aging audiences, to adapt to a rapidly growing population of people with Alzheimer’s, and to be more widely accessible.
The number of Americans with Alzheimer’s is expected to grow 40 percent by 2025. By 2050, there could be 16 million people living with the memory-robbing disease.
“The audience of museum-goers is changing with the baby boomers,” said Dawn Koceja, coordinator of SPARK, a unique collaboration among museums in Minnesota and Wisconsin that offer programs for people with Alzheimer’s. “Our audiences are growing older, and we want to keep our museum-goers active and show them this is a place where they can feel welcome and safe and supported.”
At the James J. Hill House, memory loss tours can include a singalong or a sample of Mrs. Hill’s shortbread cookies. Starting in spring, the Mill City Museum will offer hands-on baking labs.
“There is a lot out there percolating,” said Maren Levad, museum access specialist for the Minnesota Historical Society. “I think people are starting to get on the train and realize what a big issue this is.”
Art museum tours for people with memory loss typically stop at three or four works. Docents may pass around additional sensory items, like a rug people can touch while looking at a tapestry, or a pine candle they can smell while viewing a tree. At every step, docents ask participants questions they might not ask on a traditional tour. What does this remind you of? How do you feel about what you are seeing?
“What in a work of art awakens your story?” said Debbi Hegstrom, senior educator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
This approach, Hegstrom said, taps into visitors’ long-term memories without asking them to remember “what happened 10 minutes ago.” Early on, museum educators found that the tours were a “vehicle” for helping people “express themselves in what’s becoming a pretty confusing world for some of them.”
As research into Alzheimer’s advances, people are being diagnosed earlier. That means their cognition and memory skills are still functioning, and they can still take pleasure in social activities, like Marv Lofquist does.
“I’d sure get bored to death if I was sitting here doing crossword puzzles all day,” said Lofquist, of Golden Valley, Minnesota. Since his diagnosis in 2012, the former chemist routinely forgets some details, like his age (72), and conversations he had only hours before. He’s had to step down from his work on organizational boards. But he stays active by speaking to groups on behalf of the Alzheimer’s Association and attending museum tours.
“If you asked me right now what I remember about the last time we were in the Bakken Museum, I’d be able to give you a few details but not very many,” Lofquist said. “I have trouble recalling it later, but what’s important is that I get that stimulation regularly.”
The tours are as much for patients as they are for caregivers. In a low-hassle setting, with someone else in charge, it gives them a chance to talk about more than doctor’s appointments.
“When you do something like this, it feels more like a date,” said Elaine Lofquist, Marv’s wife. “It really is wonderful for the care partner to have that sense of well-being outside of the frustrations that go on in the house.”
Memory loss tours are part of a larger effort by museums and cultural institutions to be more amenable to people with a variety of needs.
“It’s about universal design,” said Emma Allen, visitor services manager at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, which will break ground on a new building next spring. The building will have a multipurpose “wellness room,” which can be a quiet space for an overstimulated child, a nursing room, a place for prayer or a nap room. The museum currently offers a low-sensory event for children with autism; fluorescent lights are turned down, sound on videos is lowered.
“There are a lot of barriers in the world that keep people from participating fully,” Allen said. “How do we make a space that has fewer barriers?”
Standing in a room at that’s been plastered in 18th century Chinese wallpaper, Goggin asked the group from Rakhma Joy Home in St. Paul, Minn., about their favorite Chinese food. Julie Allen struggled to find the words, until her friend helped: cashew chicken.
When she was asked if she enjoyed the trip, which included six works of art, Allen nodded and smiled. “It tricks my mind,” she said, “gets things going.”
At the end of the tour, Goggin gave out postcards depicting another artwork, this one of a snowy street scene.
She handed one to Allen. “For you to remember your tour,” she said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.