Art program helps people living with dementia
By Jay Nachman
ARTZ Philadelphia is the only nonprofit organization dedicated to using group interactions around arts and culture to enhance the quality of life and well-being of people living with dementia and their care partners, according to Susan Shifrin, who founded the organization in 2013.
“Our mission is to reach anyone and everyone who is affected by dementia-related conditions of any kind,” she said.
ARTZ Philadelphia presents evidence-based programs that connect people who are living with dementia and those they love to artists and cultural organizations. These connections help build caring and supportive communities that restore and preserve the self-esteem and dignity of participants, regardless of their race, background, address or economic resources.
“For those living with dementia, engaging in the arts, whether it’s a visit to a museum or a concert, enhances the quality of their lives, inspires creativity, and empowers self-expression and continued self-realization,” Shifrin said.
Through ARTZ Philadelphia programs, care partners of people living with dementia rediscover the relationships with their loved ones. “They (care partners) see (their loved ones) in a very different setting. They see them responding to art. They see them offering insights, which are often extraordinary. And they remember, ‘oh, yes, this is what I love about this person. I love his sense of humor. And he’s making everyone laugh.’”
That was the experience of Susan (last name omitted for privacy) following the dementia diagnosis of her husband, Daniel, who now lives in a care facility.
“There’s not that much that a person with Alzheimer’s and a caregiver can do together,” she said.
ARTZ Philadelphia programs provided human interaction, beyond taking walks and going out for coffee. “It was a lot of stimulation, a lot of interaction; it was very positive,” said Susan, 65, of Center City. “And it was something we could do together. I could make some comments about art. He could make some comments, and it felt closer to normal. He had a lot to say, at least in the beginning. There isn’t a lot out there like that.”
Daniel was a drummer, so he had an artistic side. “Music was a huge part of his life,” she said.
Equally valuable to Susan was the respite and support she received from her peers. ARTZ Philadelphia offers conversation groups to provide support and community for caregivers who are in similar situations.
“They’re going through the same thing,” she said. “When my husband was at home, they knew exactly everything I was talking about.”
Besides being able to unburden herself, fellow members of ARTZ Philadelphia groups were able to share practical advice about what worked for them. “That made a big difference,” said Susan.
By design, care partners find a different kind of support with ARTZ Philadelphia. “The goal of our programs is to stimulate care partners intellectually and to engage them creatively,” Shifrin said. “All the things we do with the people they’re caring for also give them (a mental break), say, two hours where what they’re thinking about has nothing to do with illness.”
In addition to being an accessibility advocate, Shifrin is an art historian, curator and educator. She founded ARTZ Philadelphia after hosting a series of workshops and programs for visitors living with dementia at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, in Collegeville, where she was the museum’s educator for a number of years.
“It showed me in a very palpable way the power of creating a safe space, a validating space and being able to have a common, shared experience,” Shifrin said.
Prior to the pandemic, ARTZ Philadelphia served about 2,000 people living with dementia-related conditions and their caregivers each year. While taking tentative steps to establish safe, in-person programming, much of ARTZ Philadelphia’s programs and resources are now online, allowing the organization to serve approximately 8,000 people nationwide.
“We do absolutely everything we can to help people feel safe, welcomed, comfortable and joyful,” Shifrin said.
For more information about ARTZ Philadelphia’s free programs, call 610-721-1606 or go to ArtzPhilly.org.
CAPTION: Sylvia M. paints a colorful pattern at an “ARTZ in the Making” program.
Jay Nachman is a freelance writer in Philadelphia who tells stories for a variety of clients.