For Students

Meet Me at UMMA

Touring visitors with dementia

Touring visitors with dementia

One afternoon early this winter, visitors at UMMA could hear a tour group softly singing, their voices trailing from the balcony near the Joan and Bob Tisch Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Led by UMMA docents in front of Sol Le Witt's series of aquatints, Stars, the activity was one of the unique approaches that docents have developed to engage Museum visitors who are living with dementia.

"Although their memories have been compromised, their senses have not," explained UMMA docent Jeanie Mack- Powers. "When we play music or sing with the guests," Gretta Spier added, "it is as if a light goes on. The whole group sings and their faces light up." In addition to music, the docents use a variety of multisensory approaches, including props, dress-up, and artmaking as means to connect with the guests and enable them to connect with works of art.

These specials tours, "Meet Me at UMMA," were developed by a small group of UMMA's community docents-Sophie Grillet, Jeanie Mack-Powers, Marlene Ross, Gretta Spier, Susan Schreiber, and Mary Wakefield-who worked closely with UMMA Director of Education Ruth Slavin. The docents and Slavin were inspired by a groundbreaking program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In November 2009, UMMA hosted a workshop by Optimal Life Designs in Dementia Care, a non-profit organization that specializes in dementia education and training. Anne Robinson, Director of Optimal Life, and Carrie McGee, an educator with the Meet Me at MoMA Alzheimer's Project, along with area physicians, presented a conceptual framework for understanding the potential impact that dementia can have on the ability to communicate one's needs, experiences, and desires, alongside practical considerations in designing, offering, and facilitating small group art gallery experiences.

For its pilot year, UMMA has partnered with two well-known Ann Arbor organizations that provide care for people living with dementia-Huron Woods, which is affiliated with St. Joseph Mercy Health System, and the University of Michigan Health System's Turner Geriatric Center Silver Club. In preparation for touring, the docents worked closely with leadership and staff from both of these organizations. Through these meetings, the team was able to learn more about both the broad picture of living with dementia as well as special techniques to engage with Museum guests with dementia. For the docents, it has been an incredible privilege to work with these groups and to develop the Meet Me at UMMA tours. It's been a "love affair between the caregivers, the docents, and the guests," said Susan, "and we have all learned a lot from each other about how to be better guides."

Unlike preparing for other adult tours, the docents carefully select works of art that will allow them to expound on the material by using multimedia or multisensory approaches. For instance, when touring the collection of Tiffany glass from the Henry O. Havemeyer House, Marlene Ross dressed up to play the role of Mr. Havemeyer's wife, Louisine. And when docents led tours through UMMA's recent kimono exhibition, Wrapped in Silk and Gold: A Family Legacy of 20th- Century Japanese Kimono, they unfurled an obi across the laps of the guests. These activities triggered imagination and recognition-experiencing the role-playing and feeling the material of the obi helped the visitors to respond to the works.

Caregivers from Huron Woods and the Silver Club are present on each tour, and family members are invited and encouraged to attend and participate as well. "The tours are a wonderful opportunity for family members to see their loved ones engaged and enjoying themselves," explained Marlene. "It's therapeutic-the tours create a bonding place for everyone involved and often allow for the guests and their families to be better able to communicate."

Slavin notes that leadership museums today are seizing opportunities to use their collections to connect with people in an expanding variety of ways. "I am a strong believer that museums can respond to important human needs and Meet Me at UMMA is just one example of that. In the process we are learning more about the value our collections hold for people."