Elizabeth Goings, Exhibition Content Manager
I wear a lot of different hats at FWMoA. I write and edit text for almost all of our exhibitions, lead our adult tour groups, and keep our exhibition calendar in order, just to name a few. But one of my favorite parts of my job is our “Meet Me at FWMoA” tour program. This monthly tour and bi-monthly hands-on art project are geared specifically towards individuals with early onset Alzheimer’s and their caregivers.
Ran in partnership with our local Alzheimer’s Association, the Alzheimer’s Association Greater Indiana Chapter, “Meet Me” is different from a normal tour. Rather than trekking through all the galleries each month, I pick 2-3 specific pieces to focus on in the gallery. We set out chairs in the gallery, and as a group we take our time talking about the work. Our discussion varies from piece to piece, ranging from imaginative interpretations of Steven Sorman’ s abstract art to past memories sparked by a Hoosier Impressionist landscape. The participants guide the discussion, all I do is ask open ended questions such as “What do you see?” “How does this make you feel?” “Do you like this work? Why or why not?” Without fail, our energetic and rambunctious group points out something that I haven’t seen before – even if I’ve taken other tour groups through that gallery numerous times.
“Meet Me” is a special program. We’ve been giving tours for over two years now and hands-on projects have been going on for a little over a year. I’ve gotten to know the participants who have been with us from the beginning, and seeing new faces get comfortable and find their place in the group is beyond rewarding. These relationships are what “Meet Me” is founded upon. While we dig into each work of art or project with gusto, what really matters is that our participants and their caregivers truly enjoy their time with us, that they feel safe, and that they take something away from each visit.
As with any program that caters to the elderly, we’ve experienced loss in our group – members have progressed in their disease or passed away; but, we can see that lives were touched and changed for the better over the last two years. One such example is Judy Gillman, who began bringing her husband Dick during the early days of “Meet Me”. Judy was always talkative and engaged with each piece on a personal level, while Dick was often quiet and reserved – Judy says that this was the engineer in him, quiet and collected, a silent observer.
There were times when I wasn’t sure if Dick enjoyed coming to the museum, but one day he found his stride in an exhibition that I was unsure of and feared might fall a little flat – John Baeder’s monochromatic paintings of World War II airplanes in John Baeder Takes Wing on a Higher Road. Dick ended up leading the discussion that day! He knew about every model and where in Europe and the Pacific they were deployed. From that day forward, he was chattier and visually excited to visit. Dick and Judy took part in the first hands-on project (an abstract cut paper self-portrait) and he was so excited to portray himself with the colorful construction paper – precisely of course, he was an engineer after all.
Just as Dick was opening up to the group, he passed away in the spring of 2018. His and Judy’s absence were immediately felt, but after a few months Judy started coming back to our tours as a volunteer. She was touched by “Meet Me” and the difference it made in Dick’s life, and she wanted to help improve the lives of others affected by Alzheimer’s. I sat down and talked with her about her experiences with “Meet Me” and why she’s so passionate about the program.
Elizabeth: What is it that makes “Meet Me @ FWMoA” so unique to you?
Judy: First and foremost, the vast exposure to various art exhibits. The reactions from patients and caregivers is sometimes so surprising. Each exhibit draws out different individuals – people respond in different and unexpected ways all the time. Participants can be quiet and say nothing with one piece, but they’ll expound at the next. To me, this shows how art is a natural outlet for expression and conversation.
Elizabeth: “Meet Me” has been going on for over two years now. Why do you think people keep coming back and inviting others?
Judy: They’re intrigued and want to see what’s next! For this group in particular, routine is important. But having the excitement of a new work of art is exhilarating. Individuals with Alzheimer’s are genuinely inquisitive, but they can be reserved at first. The variety you have here intrigues them and draws them out. Also, familiarity with their community is important, and they have that here. They feel accepted and safe.
Elizabeth: Why did you decide to volunteer with “Meet Me”?
Judy: I’m very committed to Alzheimer’s – it’s a terrible disease. I think it’s important that we give every human being a chance to express themselves, in any positive form, until they can’t. They can express themselves here. I can relate to this personally because my husband Dick had Alzheimer’s, and we came here. However, even if he hadn’t had Alzheimer’s, I would have wanted to help if I’d been made aware. I also wanted to help with Meet Me because I have a relationship with these people – we started attending the Alzheimer’s Association’s support groups at the same time and became close friends.
Elizabeth: What is your favorite part of the tours and hands on program?
Judy: I like that everyone has the opportunity to work out what they think. You don’t rush them into an idea, and their imagination has a chance to come out. Everyone has the opportunity to think for themselves and then express it. You take your time and are patient – it’s a tremendous asset and caregivers and patients alike appreciate it.
Also, the variety of artwork is wonderful – it’s different every single time! We’ve gone from seeing abstract work like Picasso to realistic portraits by Joel Daniel Phillips to glass sculpture and installations. It’s always something different.
People who are interested in attending the monthly tours must be pre-screened through the Fort Wayne office of the Alzheimer’s Association by calling 800.272.3900. Tours are free of charge for participants and their care partners and will take place the third Tuesday of each month at 2pm, each lasting about an hour.
If you have questions for FWMoA staff, please call Elizabeth Goings at 260.422.6467.