Clark engages people with dementia, caregivers

The Meet Me at the Clark program gives people with dementia and their caregivers a unique chance to view the Clark's collection. Photo courtesy of
The Meet Me at the Clark program gives people with dementia and their caregivers a unique chance to view the Clark’s collection. Photo courtesy of

By 4 p.m. last Monday, the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s Head of Education Programs Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer and her team of volunteer docents could have gone home after the first of six Meet Me at the Clark sessions this year. However, with obvious passion and dedication, the team gathered to discuss highlights of the afternoon and possible refinements for the future.

Meet Me at the Clark is an educational program designed for people living with dementia as well as their caregivers. The Clark has several branches of education that reach out to many sectors of the community, Ostheimer said. “The first [branch] is the graduate program we share with Williams,” she said. “The second is the fellowship program intended for high-level professionals who come and work on their own research projects. And the third, which includes the Meet Me program, is education for the general public. Our goal with education for the public is to make the museum feel accessible and relevant to the community.”

The new Meet Me program is based on a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. After initial success, the MoMA received a grant from the MetLife Foundation in 2009 to train other museums. The Clark had developed a concerted outreach program for specialized audiences 10 years earlier, so museum educators welcomed the opportunity to receive training from the MoMA.

At the heart of the Meet Me program lies the principle educational philosophy of the Clark. “We believe that engaging with art makes us more truly human,” Ostheimer said. “When you engage with art, you are validating the subjective way of being. It’s living in the moment and there is no right and wrong. And if engaging with art awakens the dynamics of humanity, it makes sense to bring in people who have been in dehumanizing situations.”

In order to kick-start the program, the Clark partnered with Sharon Lazerson, the Activities Director at Kimball Farms retirement community in Lenox, Mass. In an article for the new book The Caring Museum: New Models of Engagement with Aging, Lazerson wrote, “It has been a joy to help launch Meet Me at the Clark and I have been most fortunate to find in Ronna Tulgan Ostheimer a colleague who mirrors my passion for bringing the arts to people with dementia. Residents who have participated in the sessions at the Clark enter a space dedicated to uplifting the human spirit, reserved just for them once a month.”

Lydia Littlefield first attended Meet Me at the Clark in June 2013, as a caregiver for her father, a patient at Kimball Farms. The program was incredibly impactful both for her and for her father, she said, even in ways one might not have anticipated. “On the bus ride [to the Clark], I got to sit next to him,” Littlefield said of her father. “This was a huge deal because I would normally be driving. During our visit we looked at ‘The Scout: Friends or Foes?’ by Frederic Remington, ‘Undertow’ by Winslow Homer and ‘Saco Bay’ by Winslow Homer. I remember looking at ‘Friends or Foes’ [which depicts a Blackfoot Indian looking out on a snowy landscape] and thinking about how my father, my best friend in the world, was drifting further and further away.”

For Littlefield, the most significant moment of that day actually came on the ride home. “On the bus I had the impulse to put my head on his shoulder, which I had not done in years,” she said. “When he passed away three weeks later, I held tight to those few minutes of just having my dad.” After the death of her father, Littlefield earned her Masters of Science in Historic Preservation from University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and she has now started to volunteer at the Clark as a docent for the Meet Me program.

As pairs of participants – people with dementia and their caregivers – arrive at the museum on a given Monday, a day when the museum is otherwise closed, both the person with dementia and the caregiver are greeted with warm smiles and a name tag. “The program is free, but we ask people to pre-register so we can have their name tag waiting and make them feel comfortable from the moment they enter the museum,” Ostheimer said. “Then we explore the gallery in groups of eight to 10 with a docent.”

As the groups enter the gallery, it’s business-as-usual for the docents, with only minor accommodations. “In a typical gallery talk, the docent will often refocus conversation on the artwork; however, with this group, we let the conversation play out,” Ostheimer explained. “The purpose of the afternoon is to a have a positive, personal experience by engaging with art. Although they learn about the art, it’s not just about the art.”

The engagement with the museum’s collection is equally important for both halves of the pairs of Meet Me visitors. “I believe it’s a valuable service for the caregivers,” said docent Peter Mehlin, who has experience guiding everyone from Head Start preschool students to Meet Me participants through the Clark’s galleries. “There are not many places you can take someone with dementia and have an hour of quality of time,” he added.

Ostheimer also stressed the emphasis on the pair rather than just the person living with dementia. “The Meet Me program is designed for people with dementia and their caregivers,” she said. “One is not more the audience than the other. It’s really designed for pair.”

After the program’s hour of conversation and positive engagement, the participants exit the gallery and are offered a keepsake. “We give everyone a large copy of each work they saw in the gallery,” Ostheimer said. “We have been told that the caretakers often put the images on the walls of [where] the people with dementia [live] so that the conversation and memories continue.”

Yet after months of preparation and about two and a half years of running Meet Me at the Clark events, the work continues for Ostheimer and the team as they seek to continuously improve the program. Based on this season’s first session last Monday, next month’s program will feature more time at each work and more space between groups to limit ambient noise. “In all of our programs, we build in evaluation and feedback in order to be responsive,” Ostheimer said. “Nothing we do is a fixed program. Everything is a work in progress.”

The next Meet Me at the Clark session will take place on Monday, Oct. 26.

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