Creativity & Dementia

Through here:now, Suzanne Visser renewed her joy in making art,
strengthened her relationship with her son, and found respite
from the daily challenges of Alzheimer's.
Photo courtesy of Jill Hardy, Frye Art Museum.

For 25 years, Suzanne Visser worked as an oncology research nurse, caring for individuals battling cancer and helping medical science find answers in the process. The last four years of her career were spent educating the next generation of nursing professionals. Having witnessed the benefits of medical research and education firsthand, Suzanne is determined to do her part to discover answers of another sort: the cause of Alzheimer's disease and finding a cure. She is currently enrolled in research studies in hopes of finding answers to a disease that hits close to home.

Suzanne, age 62, was diagnosed with younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2004.

As an independent, professional woman, the first hurdle in this unexpected change in her life plan—and most difficult decision she had ever had to make—was to ask her eldest son, Hans, to be her caregiver. As Suzanne put it, "For the first time as an adult, I felt vulnerable and out of control of my future goals. And now, since my diagnosis, every day is precious to me."

Growing demand means here:now
classes fill early. Photo courtesy of

Jill Hardy, Frye Art Museum

Through her journey with a progressive, fatal disease, she has the support of her family, friends, healthcare team, and the Alzheimer's Association, Western and Central Washington State Chapter staff, who give their time and energy to help Suzanne and other individuals and families affected by Alzheimer's and related dementias to have a quality of life that respects and maintains their dignity. As Suzanne reflects, "Without the programs and services that are offered to those of us whose lives have been affected by Alzheimer's, this journey would be unbearable."

But Chapter staff will be the first to admit they can't do this alone. Partnerships with other agencies and organizations are key to meeting the needs of persons with dementia. Sometimes it's partnering with an agency like Full Life Care to provide memory care and wellness services, or teaming with the University of Washington's School of Nursing and Seattle Parks and Recreation to pilot a walking and social support research study (which Suzanne also participated in) to enhance the number of programs available to persons diagnosed with Alzheimer's or a related dementia, or forming an alliance with the Frye Art Museum, supporting their efforts to offer art programs for persons with dementia.

Over two years ago, The Frye explored the idea of offering an arts program for persons with dementia and their care partners, similar to Meet Me at MoMA, a program started in 2005 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Mary Jane Knecht, Manager of Adult Programs at The Frye, spearheaded here:now, the only museum-based arts engagement program of its kind in Washington state. Knecht's mother has Alzheimer's.

The Frye assembled a creative alliance with the Alzheimer's Association and Elderwise, a Seattle nonprofit focused on cultural enrichment and art-making for seniors, and the pilot of here:now was launched.

Suzanne and her son, Hans, were part of that launch. And the unanticipated benefits of the program included a renewed joy of art appreciation and art-making, a healing and strengthening of the relationship between mother and son, and respite from the daily challenges and concerns of Alzheimer's.

Through here:now, Alzheimer's and related dementias may be what bring participants together but it is not the focal point of time spent together—it's art. And though art is the focal point, all that's required is a willingness to engage in and enjoy the experience.

here:now offers value on multiple levels, one of the most important of which is social and intellectual engagement. So often dementia patients will retreat and isolate following a diagnosis, sometimes developing depression. Involvement in here:now demonstrates to both the patient and his or her care partner that they can still take part in intellectually and socially stimulating  activities, with the added security of knowing they are sharing these experiences with others in similar circumstances. No judgment. No stigma. Instead, there is acceptance and the pure enjoyment of art discussion and expression. And an added benefit is that the program is offered free of charge.

As one here:now participant reports, "I love this time when there is nothing to do but think about a painting and create art. I can't tell you how great it is to see the Alzheimer's to-do list take a back seat to art!"

Individuals with dementia take joy in
unbridled creativity. Photo courtesy of

Jill Hardy, Frye Art Museum.

A study of the Frye's here:now program is now underway, led by Lee Burnside, staff physician of Internal Medicine at Virginia Mason and Medical Director of Horizon House. As a fellow in Geriatric Medicine at UW Harborview, Burnside is studying the impact of here:now on participants' quality of life and also how the program impacts relationships.

From the pilot to the present, here:now has evolved into two offerings for individuals with young onset or early- to mid-stage dementia and their care partners:

  • Gallery Tours—monthly discussion-based tours led by specially trained museum educator and gallery guides encourage participants to observe and discuss works of art without relying on short-term memory or recall of art historical information.
  • Gallery Tour and Art-making Class—a six-session program that incorporates the art-discussion component and adds a studio art-making experience, offering experimentation with various media, including watercolor paint, clay, and collage. A short social time concludes each class.

Both programs are free of charge. Preregistration is required.

For now, the challenge is in meeting the growing demand. Each time the Frye starts a new season of classes, they fill quickly and result in a waiting list. As with many arts organizations, there's never a shortage of great ideas or meaningful programs but the funding to support and grow the program and offer more classes is an issue. If a foundation grant or generous private donor were to magically appear, more individuals would be served with what has proven to be a deeply meaningful experience for all involved.

Just ask Michael Elliott, MD, Medical Director of Virginia Mason Medical Center's Neuroscience Institute, how important this could be. Dr. Elliott discovered the benefits of here:now through the improved mood and well-being of one of his patients who was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. She was happy and animated during a checkup, telling him about an art program she was enjoying at The Frye. Elliott and his team have been a conduit for here:now participants ever since.

Knecht shares what The Frye is doing for individuals and their support systems outside here:now. In November 2010, she offered a full-day conference entitled Art, Creativity and Living with Dementia, featuring lectures, panels, and workshops with national and local experts. Participants in The Frye's conference included educators with arts and cultural organizations, professionals who work with dementia patients, and those caring for family members or friends with dementia.

In February, a day-long class—Creative Expression and Dementia: A Workshop for Professionals and Family Care Partners—was so popular that The Frye offered it again one month later. The intent is to educate others so that they can take the program to their homes or communities of care or utilize it as part of their own arts engagement programs.

Stay tuned as we suspect there will be more to come!

For more information about the Alzheimer's Association, Western and Central Washington State Chapter, based in Seattle, visit www.alzwa.org or call 800-272-3900. For more information about the Frye Art Museum—access to which shall always be free—visit www.fryemuseum.org or call 206-622-9250.

—Keri Pollock, Alzheimer's Association, Western and Central Washington State Chapter