Sparking memories through art for visitors with Alzheimer's

By Brandi Simmons

Taking a guided tour through the LSU Museum of Art might seem like a relatively normal experience, but for some visitors, it can have a dramatic impact on their lives.

Since 2013, in collaboration with Alzheimer’s Services of the Capital Area, Laura Larsen has led Art & Alzheimer’s art tours through the museum each spring specifically for individuals living with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. She focuses on a single gallery for each visit, engaging the participants through a variety of simple questions that require no prior knowledge. “Art acts as the prompt for promoting dialogue and enables individuals to tap into their imaginations,” she says.

Asking “Which painting would you like to take home?” or “What do you think this person would be like to meet?” gives everyone an opportunity to participate in the conversation based on their observations in that moment. These simple discussions often lead to something much more meaningful.

A tour through Everlasting Calm: The Art of Elliott Daingerfield provided an example of how impactful these experiences can be. One individual, attending with his daughter/caregiver, had not spoken in weeks—until seeing these paintings. He joined his fellow participants in sharing heartwarming stories about their youth, the art sparking distant memories spent on farms taking care of geese and milking cows. Through art, he was able to find his voice again. “It was the most memorable and rewarding tour I have ever given,” Larsen says.

Larsen, a Brooklyn native raised among physicians and artists, has honed her natural gift with these visitors and their families over several years. She first learned of the positive benefits of these specialized tours nearly a decade ago. They gave her a unique opportunity to combine her areas of expertise—she has a master’s in art history and a doctorate in nursing with a focus on counseling caregivers whose loved ones have dementia. After much research, she trained with a number of institutions utilizing this initiative, including the country’s leading program at the Museum of Modern Art, and adapted a version for tours here in Baton Rouge.

The museum environment, rather than a clinical one, helps create a sense of normalcy where social interaction and expression can occur. “Experiencing art in a museum is a move away from focusing on the ‘deficiencies’ experienced by someone with dementia toward emphasizing many rich experiences that are still possible,” Larsen says. “Museum programs can improve quality of life and well-being by creating positive experiences which may then have a secondary impact on decreasing depression and isolation.”

Brandi Simmons is LSU MOA’s communications coordinator.