Access Programs at The CJM: Art and Alzheimer's

An example of a welcoming ritual using a piece of string to connect the group.
The power of art to engage individuals with Alzheimer’s is profound. There is a growing body of research that shows that art, music, and other creative activities have significant positive effects on the quality of life, self-expression, socialization, and overall cognitive functioning of those affected by the disease.

As demographic patterns of health and aging are rapidly changing, museums are playing a more significant role in health issues. There are approximately five million Americans who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Museums have been stepping up to the plate to serve this growing population, and for the last three years, The CJM has been serving individuals with memory loss through our Memory Arts Café program.

What is Memory Arts Café?   

Memory Arts Café is a free bi-monthly interactive tour program designed for individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s, and their care partners. It provides an opportunity for participants to connect to art through conversation-based tours that tap into multiple senses—through touch, music, and creative movement. Tours are limited to twelve participants and are led by a trained museum educator. Our goal is to create a welcoming and engaging atmosphere.

Here is a snapshot of a recent Memory Arts Café inspired by our exhibition Arthur Szyk and the Art of the Haggadah and the theme of freedom that is at the heart of the Passover story: 

Welcoming Activity 

It’s 10am and there are four couples gathered in The Museum’s lobby exchanging greetings, hugs, and observations about the architecture. For the participants, it’s not just a typical visit to a museum, it’s about the ritual of meeting a group of people who have similar life challenges and medical conditions. It’s about sharing personal reflections about their lives. It’s about connecting with art and allowing oneself to be creative without the fear of being judged for “not remembering” or for having the “wrong” answer. And it's about breaking down the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s, and creating a space where everyone feels welcomed and included. Participants come from all different cultural backgrounds—one participant is a Japanese American man who after the WWII was displaced with his family into a Japanese internment camp in Manzanar. 

The tour begins with the group gathering in the Grand Lobby and reciting a "Welcome Poem." This ritual is inspired by Gary Glazner’s Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, where he uses a call-and-response technique. The tour guide recites lines from a poem, and the participants echo back the words in response. It has been shown that individuals with Alzheimer’s benefit from what is known as echoic memory, which is one of the sensory registers in the brain that is specific to retaining auditory information. Individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s can retain auditory information for 3–4 seconds after it is spoken. Call-and-response stimulates healthy brain function.

"Welcome to my house.
Welcome to my door.
Welcome to my country.
Welcome to my shore.

It is good to know you,
Good to see your friendly smile.
It’s so good to shake your hand
And stay with you a while."

—Written by Museum Educator and Poet, Gail Newman

After the Welcome Poem, participants are invited into the gallery for a guided experience. Each Memory Arts Café is structured around a theme that focuses on 4–5 pieces of artwork, art-historical information, multisensory activities (poetry, movement, music), and an art-making activity or poetry workshop.

Museum Educator: “Welcome everyone, we are so excited to have you here today at The Contemporary Jewish Museum! Just to give you a sense of what to expect on your visit today, we are going to be spending the next 60 minutes looking at four different pieces of artwork focused around a central theme. Since the Jewish holiday of Passover is in a couple of weeks, and this exhibition is focused on the traditions surrounding this holiday, our theme will be Tradition and Freedom. We are also going to be creating our own poetry at the end of the tour. This is a safe space, and I want to encourage you to share your observations, ideas or stories that come up for you. So let’s get started!”

Gallery tours are inquiry-based and encourage participants to share personal reflections and stories around the artwork. Museum educators also design activities for participants to explore the exhibition through all their senses. In the photo below, the group uses creative movement to associate meaning with the sculpture they are discussing.

Museum Educator: What do you all see in this artwork? What is the first thing that you notice, that surprises or intrigues you?

Poetry Workshop

The group now transitions to the second part of their visit at The CJM—a one-hour poetry workshop on the theme of freedom. Participants enter the room to find a table decorated as a Passover Seder table—a white linen tablecloth, a pair of candlesticks, an antique brass seder plate, pieces of matzah, and a kiddish cup. As soon as everyone has found a place to sit at the Seder table, the Museum Educator leads the group in an activity where we go around the table acknowledging everyone with eye contact, and share what “Freedom” means.

The Museum educator pulls a drawstring bag out of her purse and empties the contents onto the Seder table. She spreads out the objects and encourages the participants to select one that intrigues them, that tells them a story, or just simply seems visually interesting. All of the objects are antique toys or everyday objects such as: a miniature clock, a feather, an eraser, a small bird nest with blue dove eggs inside, a butter knife with a translucent red handle, a small bell, an old round-head clothespin, a matchbox, and a small red dollhouse chair.

Objects intended to provoke interaction and stimulate imagination.

Museum Educator: “Using your object as inspiration, tell us what Freedom means to you.”

One participant who was been writing poetry for most of his life, picks up a clothespin, feeling its texture on his fingers. After a long pause, he seems to express his frustration at not being able to find the words: “The freedom to find a word that makes sense and sets me loose.” After another pause, he resumes his thought: “The freedom to remember when I was seven years old, my mom, how she let me clip the clothes on the line, how I stood on a chair to reach.”

As we go around the table, another participant who was withdrawn socially for most of the tour, and had very little eye contact with other participants and the artwork, is invited to share her meaning of Freedom.  She picks up a small eraser with printed Chinese characters and exclaims in a full voice: “xìnɡ fú”- 幸福, which means Happiness. When encouraged to expand on the word xìnɡ fú, she said: “Freedom of happiness!" This moment of aliveness in her voice felt like a real breakthrough.

At the end of the poetry workshop, I noticed something had shifted in the way participants were expressing themselves. One participant who began the program withdrawn and quiet was now displaying better posture and more expressive use of language. Another participant who was hesitant in vocalizing his observations now had a quality of “flow” to his words. One of the care partners who accompanied her husband with Alzheimer’s expressed that the tour allowed her to “release emotions” and “connect with others.” At one point, when we were singing the Passover song Dayenu, she and her husband began to sing along with tears in their eyes.

It’s now 12pm. It’s been a great experience for all of the participants and staff. There are smiles, people hugging, exchanging emails, and complimenting each other on their work. There is a sense of community pulsating throughout the room, and they each leave with a copy of the poem they created together. Here is that poem:

What Is Freedom?

Freedom to love,
to say good-bye.
Freedom to tell you
the secret of life,
to tell a story, my story,
a love story.
The freedom to be in the present
when there is no end to space,
no end to freedom.
The freedom to light a candle
for celebration, to see, a candle for warmth,
to remember family, loved or lost ones,
a candle to lead the way
and overcome darkness.
Freedom to float on a large body
of water looking at open sky,
to see the ocean.
The freedom to be Jewish.
Freedom from internment
when I served in World War II.
The freedom to remember
when I was seven years old, my mom,
how she let me clip the clothes on the line,
how I stood on a chair to reach.
The freedom to expand
and make changes,
The freedom to find a word that makes sense
and sets me loose.
The freedom to go with nature
after long years of problems,
to find beauty.
The freedom to sit on a small
red chair in the living room.
The freedom of 幸福 [xìnɡ fú]-happiness.
The freedom to have a clock
that doesn’t tell the right time.
The freedom of the round, continuous
shape of eggs-birth-dove eggs,
the beginning of love, little and sweet.
The freedom of small things- the ringing
of a cow bell, small gestures, movements,
Bird eggs for decoration.
A clear red knife handle to look through.
A small book to read. A glass piece to slide.
A feather for cleaning a chair.
The freedom to eat
and a candle to light the way.

Special thanks to Museum Educators and Memory Arts Café facilitators, Jennifer Ewing and Gail Newman.

About the Author
Cecile Puretz currently serves as the Education and Access Manager at The CJM, where she is responsible for developing Access initiatives. Previously, she worked at The Center for the Arts in Human Development, a creative arts therapy center in Montreal, developing arts education programming for individuals with disabilities. She is the co-founder of the Bay Area Arts Access Collective (BAAAC)—a group of museum professionals, arts educators and representatives from the disability community who are dedicated to improving accessibility in Bay Area museums. She holds a BA in Community Studies from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an MA in Education from Concordia University, Montreal. Cecile is a San Francisco native and is driven by a firm belief that everyone deserves equal access to the arts.


Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
What a wonderful program. Congrats Cecile!
Thais said…
Very inspirational, Cecile. You have really found a niche for all your talents and social activism, Bravo!
Art speaks to the soul; it is not just talk to our brains. Our elders are returning to pure Spirit so, the visual, audio and tactile 'speaks' to them when mere words can not. Carry on and, Bon Chance! xxoo, Thais

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