June 4, 2013

Sad, forlorn, desperate and depressed – these are some of the feelings that devoted family members face when caring for loved ones with dementia. A new Israeli art kit for home use, “In the Armchair with Picasso,” can help.

“In the Armchair with Picasso” was developed by a team of professionals associated with EMDA, the Alzheimer’s Association of Israel. One of the co-developers is Michal Herz, who works in project development from EMDA, the country’s only nationwide support system for people with dementia.

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“We try to develop projects based on what the relatives say they want,” Herz tells ISRAEL21c. “Often we hear from them that life feels so narrow, that they can’t do so many things with their parents that they could in the past, before the illness. They don’t have an outlet to do stimulating things with their loved ones anymore.

“We were looking for a concept that would change this scenario,” says Herz.

And so the take-home art kit was born, inspired by successful museum tours for Alzheimer’s patients in Israel.

How art helps

“Dementia” is a general term for people with deteriorating memory loss, caused by one or more diseases. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause in people over 65, and Israel has been at the forefront of research into diagnosing and treating this devastating disease.

This is one of the cards included. Can you name the painter?
This is one of the cards included. Can you name the painter?

According to experts at EMDA, people with dementia retain the ability to enjoy art even into late stages of their disease. Art can therefore be a window into the otherwise closed world of a person lost to dementia. Art can help improve cognitive skills, communication skills and emotional expression.

“After buying the kit, people are sending me emails saying they are learning new things about their mom –– things they never knew before,” says Herz. “Or that their mom is remembering new things from her youth. Communication otherwise had been poor and without depth.”

The art kit story started at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York, the institution that conceived the idea of catering museum tours to people with dementia: “Meet Me At MOMA” began about five years ago, and Israel was one of the first to pick up the program.

The aim is to get people with dementia out of the house along with their family members, who cope with the energy-draining task of communicating with their loved ones.

Therapeutic museum tours

Herz started MOMA-style tours at 12 museums in Israel, and participants were eager for more. So she and her partners at EMDA decided to make an art “tour” that can be used therapeutically at home.

The kit comes with a CD.
The kit comes with a CD.

EMDA gained copyrights to about 50 prints by famous painters, and printed them on large cardboard posters. On the back are questions and tips for communicating with those suffering from dementia. An EMDA-endorsed user booklet is also enclosed.

The images were chosen to reflect a “normative” life, says Herz. “Prints are of everyday scenes so that people with dementia see themselves or their lives in the art,” she tells ISRAEL21c. Francis Bacon would be a no-go, as his images are violent. Pictures that are too surreal wouldn’t make the cut, nor would burlesque dancers, for example.

The kits are available in Hebrew and English, sent anywhere by mail order for about $50. They have been a big hit in day centers especially, says Herz, who has presented the art kit in conferences abroad. Colleagues have expressed an interest in making their own version based on the Israeli model, and MOMA may work toward this goal.

There is no clinical data in yet on how well the kits work, but the response by those using it has been encouraging, says Herz.

“This art kit has an emotional impact for both sides. It enhances the patient’s sense of well-being and affects the caretaker by charging them up with energy,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

EMDA, which serves as a support and umbrella organization for about 50 Alzheimer’s and dementia non-profits in Israel, also is participating in New York University’s Caregiver Intervention, a program intended to improve the well-being of spouse caregivers and delay the nursing home placement of patients with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director