Walker program aims to help with Alzheimer's challenge

Duane and Walter
Wilder Memory Club members Duane and Walter work with Hildy, one of the Walker Art Center's tour guides trained for the Contemporary Journeys program in the art lab.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

When most institutions talk about accessibility it's about how easy it is to get around their buildings.

The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis is working on a different kind of accessibility -- programming for people with Alzheimer's and the people who take care of them.

On a recent afternoon a group gathered in the Walker's basement art lab.

"Come on in and grab some coffee and cream, then just pick any spot around the table," says the host.

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"Do you have a remedial spot?" someone jokes.

These are members of the Wilder Memory Club, a program to help people in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and their caregivers. There's a lot of gray hair in the room. There's a lot of laughter, too. The Walker's Courtney Gerber welcomes them to the Contemporary Journeys program.

"You are going to go upstairs and have a tour of a photography exhibition by local boy Alec Soth. That'll be about an hour," she said. "And then they will bring you back down here and you will become an artist, at least for about an hour."

Art class
Examples of pictures created using colored cellophane stand on the table at a Contemporary Journeys session at the Walker Art Center.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The Memory Club is actually a 10-week course run by the Alzheimer's Association. The idea is to teach people what to expect as the disease progresses, and also to develop support groups. Looking round the room, it's not so easy to spot who has the condition. It's clear this group as bonded.

Club members introduce themselves to the Walker staff. Don from Mahtomedi points out he doesn't know a lot about what goes on at the Walker.

"I know nothing about art either. A little about arthritis," he says dryly, causing the group to erupt in laughter.

The Walker's Contemporary Journeys program also aims to build communication, and to develop strategies for dealing with a new frustrating reality of the challenges of memory loss, the fear and embarrassment of messing up. Art lab supervisor Ilene Krug Mojsilov points out that in the modern art world getting something wrong can be a creative opportunity.

"A mistake can be a good idea," she told the group. "Sometimes when our faux pas, or out inability to express ourselves at certain moments, those are times when something visual might take its place."

The group heads to the gallery and has a vigorous discussion about Alec Soth's pictures, including of a young woman with wildly colored hair.

"What do you see Walter?" a tour guide asks on of the group.

Don works with Sara Tucker (standing) of the Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota/North Dakota. Tucker says early diagnosis of the disease helps families prepare better to deal with it.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"I see a cross and tattoos," he replied.

Later, back in the art lab, group members apply ideas about color and composition discussed in the gallery to making their own pieces out of colored cellophane.

Everyone seems pleased with what they've done.

The Walker developed the Contemporary Journeys program with a grant from the MetLife Foundation. The Walker's Courtney Gerber says it makes sense that a contemporary art museum which shows different ways of looking at the world, can be a help to people dealing with dementia.

To be given that freedom to come in here and say 'Oh, alright, well you're telling me that's some kind of response to the world, so how I'm seeing the world, that's acceptable too,'" she said.

The Alzheimer's Association of Minnesota/North Dakota is pushing efforts for more early diagnosis so people can prepare, on their own terms.

A new study from a legislative working group released last week reports some 100,000 Minnesotans currently suffer from Alzheimer's, and that number will increase by a third in the next decade as the population ages.

Duane, one of the Wilder Memory Club members said a little communication and understanding goes a long way

"I wouldn't wish this on anybody," he said. "But since it's here, gotta deal with it. And I think with strength and support and programming and community, whether at large or specific, I think it's doable."

The Memory Club has completed it's 10-week course, but members intend to keep on meeting, and supporting each other. They also plan more trips to the Walker.