Susan and Carl, The First Time

Going someplace new, where there will be unfamiliar people and other unknowns, can be particularly stressful for people living with dementia and for their care partners. Here, Susan J. describes the first time that she and her husband Carl D. attended an ARTZ at The Museum program.

Carl points excitedly at an artwork as other participants listen intently to his comments

“Try to imagine this scene: a husband and wife and a relatively new diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease. They are doing all the necessary things to reorganize their futures. His desire is to just live his life. At support group she hears about a program called ARTZ Philadelphia. She is an artist and art educator so this sounds interesting! He’s a math and physics fellow, but he has indulged his wife’s love of art for many years and come to enjoy it as well. So he’s basically ok with the idea of heading to the Woodmere Art Museum one Friday, if not exactly gung-ho.

The day dawns, and Carl is feeling uncertain. He’s not so sure about going. It’s hard to get out of the house; there are a number of false starts. Susan, too, is anxious, unsure about the mechanics of getting there, whether it’s the right thing for them, worried about being late. Maybe this is not such a good idea.

Carl stands next to an artwork that looks like a wrinkled sheet, examining it carefully

We arrive just on time, both of us upset and out of sorts, barely speaking. We are greeted with smiles and name tags. We are ushered into a large gallery, and seated with others in front of an enormous, black and white, trompe l’oeil painting which looks like nothing more than crumpled paper.

Susan Shifrin steps up and asks “Is this piece flat?” Carl’s hand shoots into the air. “May I get up?” “Of course!” He leaps from his chair, and goes to look at the painting from the side, then declares with a big smile “YES, it’s flat!”

As any of you who have ever attended one of these “ARTZ at The Museum” events knows, a lively discussion ensued, in which Carl’s claim was discussed up, down, and sideways, with much humor, plenty of laughter, and total engagement by everyone present. At the end of the hour, Carl turned to me, eyes sparkling and said “That was FUN!”

That day changed our lives. A door opened where before it seemed that doors were only shutting. Here was a place where no one was defined by his or her limitations. Here was a place of laughter, joy, beauty and fun.”

POSTSCRIPT: Carl and Susan have been coming to ARTZ Philadelphia programs for almost three years now. They “own” the programs, always willing to share their experiences with others who are newly arrived on the scene. At a recent Penn Memory Center event where our director had been invited to introduce a small group of people with dementia and their care partners to our programs, Carl explained to the group: “It’s not just about the art, it’s about what we say to each other, what I say to you, what you say back.”