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How art can help people with Alzheimer’s enjoy the moment

Nearly 6 million Americans currently live with Alzheimer’s disease, and the number continues to rise. For many, this terminal diagnosis represents the start of a life with limitations. But as a program called Contemporary Journeys shows, it's a life that can still offer both great joy and meaningful experiences – through the power of art. Kate McDonald of Twin Cities PBS in Minneapolis reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nearly six million Americans are living with Alzheimer's disease.

    For many, this diagnosis is the start of a life with limitations, but as an art program in Minneapolis shows, a life that can still hold great joy and meaning.

    The story comes to us from Kate McDonald of Twin Cities PBS, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Woman:

    Welcome to the Walker Art Center. We have a beautiful day today. We're going to explore the sculpture garden together.

  • Kate McDonald:

    Taking a tour of outdoor sculpture would not have been a normal activity for most of Marv Lofquist's life.

    But when the retired chemistry professor was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease seven years ago, he began to appreciate art in a new way.

  • Marv Lofquist:

    I like to contrast between the dark coat and the whitish face.

    If I got upset every time I didn't remember anything, I'd be upset all day. I can't remember what I said five minutes ago. But I think then you turn around and say, just enjoy what is there right now. I can look at things and start to appreciate them in ways that I never would have thought I would.

  • Kate McDonald:

    Lofquist is among the more than 1,000 people who've participated in Contemporary Journeys, a program designed by the Walker Art Center for people with dementia and Alzheimer's, along with a partner, often a family member or friend.

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    This artist loved to collect bones, wood pieces, stones, rocks.

  • Kate McDonald:

    Ilene Krug Mojsilov helped found the program in 2009 and leads the tours once a month.

    Mojsilov says that people with dementia are uniquely open and without inhibition when it comes to interpreting what they see.

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    Oh, Marv, you're demonstrating. Very good.

  • Marv Lofquist:

    Yes. Shake your hand. Give me your hand.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    One thing I learned from this group is, there's always someone that contributes something fresh and new that I haven't considered before.

    This group is totally in the moment. It makes me more sensitive to the world at large.

    What's missing from that coat?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    Cool. Cool.

  • Kate McDonald:

    Tour guides make adjustments for the needs of the participants. They discuss only the artwork that is right in front of them and keep conversation in the present.

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    That's what's so cool about art. What you each bring to the sculpture is important. Your ideas are important.

  • Kate McDonald:

    But does art therapy work? It's not as easy as determining if a drug is effectively working.

    The Walker asked public health Professor Joseph Gaugler to assess the project.

  • Joseph Gaugler:

    You're talking about outcomes, quality of life, well-being, more humanistic outcomes that sometimes you can always measure with a scale.

    Art therapy approaches can really help enhance the personhood of the person living with dementia. People with memory loss can still continue to express thoughts, feelings and emotions in a healthy way.

  • Kate McDonald:

    In addition to looking at art, the program engages participants in making their own art, inspired by artworks they have seen on the tour.

  • Ilene Krug Mojsilov:

    This is your space. You're going to make a sculpture park.

    Art-making, I think, amplifies the experience. It's a way to activate cognition, and is what jazzes me too. I'm looking for meaning in life. And I think care partners and our participants are looking for meaning too.

  • Kate McDonald:

    Art-making can also decrease the stress, agitation and isolation often associated with memory loss.

    Elaine Lofquist is Marv's wife and care partner. They met in high school and have been married for 53 years.

  • Elaine Lofquist:

    Doing something with Marvin just alone is fun, and we enjoy doing that. But having an activity that we can go to with other people is even more beneficial for us in terms of not feeling isolated.

  • Marv Lofquist:

    I think self-isolation is one of the worst things you can do in any situation, but especially with memory loss. I don't want to be sitting there and not feeling like I can't participate, cannot contribute.

    Getting a group like we had together to look at some artwork or talk about some things, that's what I still want to keep doing, is, what can I find enjoyable? What can I find that's meaningful?

  • Joseph Gaugler:

    As more people, unfortunately, get Alzheimer's disease, you're going to start, I think, seeing the seeds of really an advocacy movement of people with memory loss stating that, I'm still here, and my values, my thoughts, preferences matter.

  • Marv Lofquist:

    How can we turn some of the negativity around Alzheimer's and say, let's just accept it, and deal with it, and enjoy what we can?

  • Elaine Lofquist:

    And that is what art does. It's for the people, no matter where you are in your walk in life.

  • Marv Lofquist:

    For a chemist, not too bad.

    (APPLAUSE)

  • Kate McDonald:

    For "PBS NewsHour," I'm Kate McDonald of Twin Cities PBS in Minneapolis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Such a wonderful idea. Let's hope it catches on.

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