Your shopping cart is empty.



Innovative program for seniors with memory loss kindles creativity and friendship

Madison Children’s Museum, just off the bustling Capitol Square downtown, is a frenzy of sights and sounds. On a typical day, young children squeal with delight as they explore exhibits and hands-on activities. Energy levels run high at the museum, and sometimes decibel levels do, too, as kids play and learn in this colorful environment.

But Madison Children’s Museum is not only for children. One way the museum is serving older adults is through an innovative program called SPARK!, which provides arts and culture activities for people with memory loss.

In a quiet, cheery art studio tucked away on the second floor, arts coordinator Angela Johnson meets regularly with seniors who have mild to moderate memory loss, leading them in group art critiques and hands-on art projects.At the end of each SPARK! program, a little gentle exercise designed to reduce stress and increase circulation helps people unwind. Participants are encouraged to chat over coffee, fruit, and other snacks before they leave. It’s a place to create, converse, and connect with friends.

Madison Children’s Museum is one of a network of ten museums in Wisconsin and Minnesota implementing SPARK!, which is funded by the Milwaukee-based Helen Bader Foundation (click here for a list of participating institutions and contact information). The museums have developed a support network called the SPARK! Alliance that allows them to learn from each other and share best practices.

For an arts educator like Angela Johnson, who taught art in Houston schools for six years before returning to her home state of Wisconsin, working with adults experiencing memory loss was not something she expected to do—yet she has found it deeply rewarding both professionally and personally.

“I love all the programs I do,” says Johnson, “but SPARK! holds a special place in my heart, both in terms of my family history”—several of her family members had Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia—“and in terms of getting to know the participants well.”

The SPARK! Alliance takes its cues from the Meet Me at MoMA program held at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which began in 2006. Meet Me at MoMA is a program in which trained educators engage those with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers in discussions about works of art. An avenue for self-expression and mental stimulation, the program aims to provide seniors with a positive social outlet.

Funding from the Bader Foundation allowed Wisconsin SPARK! coordinators to travel to New York and learn first hand about MoMA’s experience with programming for the memory impaired, as well as similar programs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Folk Art Museum.

Says Jayna Hintz, SPARK! Alliance member and curator of education at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, “Shadowing the programs was very beneficial, rather than just talking about them.”

While it is up to each SPARK! coordinator to adapt the program model to his or her own institution’s capabilities and collection focus, the diversity of participating Wisconsin institutions—which include a children’s museum, fine art museums, and historical museums—illustrates just how flexible (and popular) the program can be.

“We can’t point to large Jackson Pollocks in our gallery space, like [MoMA] can,” says Johnson with a laugh. “Being a children’s museum, our exhibits are different than a typical art gallery. But, we’ve built up a collection of art prints that we can use for different themes, like landscape or mood. Using prints of famous paintings, we can talk about them in a way similar to the training I went through at MoMA.”

Johnson says that open-ended questions like What do you see? or What would happen next if this were a story? help to awaken participants’ creativity and spur lively discussion.

On a brisk and sunny Tuesday morning in September, Johnson led one such art critique, using prints of artworks by Georgia O’Keeffe, Vincent van Gogh and Helen Frankenthaler.

Starting with an abstract by O’Keeffe, Johnson elicited different reactions by rotating the print on its easel. At first, participants saw a storm at sea or a whale’s head; by turning it ninety degrees, others saw sardines or chicken wire. With yet another turn, a bird or a shark about to attack emerged.

Next up was Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night, with its famous swirling composition. “Maybe it could be Halloween,” said a man named Joe. “It’s turbulent; there’s something scary.”
Another man chimed in, laughing, “If I was looking out my window and saw that, I’d be very upset!”

The group erupted in chuckles, and it was generally agreed that van Gogh’s work was unsettling, except for one man who concluded, “I think it’s really beautiful.”

Throughout the art discussion, Johnson gently coaxed thoughts and reactions from participants. She encourages people to flesh out their observations by asking follow-up questions that stimulate conversation. There’s no right or wrong answer here. Rather, it’s all about appreciating art and being in the moment.

After the critique, the group moved on to an art project, making silk rounds that have a stained glass-like appearance. By drawing directly on silk with oil pastel crayons and following with washes of ink, luminous effects were created and the results hung like sun-catchers. Johnson put on a CD of relaxing music as the group got to work. As usual, this round of art-making was followed by some tai chi.

In subsequent weeks, participants return for different activities like silk-scarf dyeing and making fused-glass pendants.
“We strive to make sure that they’re adult projects, not childlike art,” affirms Johnson.


Art, friendship and memory loss

Increasingly common as our population lives longer, memory loss can be caused by a range of conditions, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, vascular disease, or traumatic brain injury.

University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh psychology professor Susan McFadden affirms the need for meaning, friendship, and community among older adults with memory loss. Together with her husband, John, a minister, McFadden is the author of Aging Together: Dementia, Friendship and Flourishing Communities (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). In their book and in their public appearances, the McFaddens examine critical questions about how to stay in friendship with people as they lose cognitive function.

“Often after a memory-loss diagnosis, meaningful conversations stop happening with friends and loved ones,” says Johnson, adding that “sometimes the most important thing they’re asked all day is, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ ”

As Susan McFadden noted in an Academy Evening talk in Menasha in spring 2011, questions about living with memory loss will only grow more urgent as U.S. life expectancy increases. In the 20th century, life expectancy nearly doubled, but with this so-called “longevity revolution” has come an increased number of older adults living with some form of dementia. Dementia is defined as a progressive impairment in memory, cognition and the ability to reason. As McFadden told the crowd of over 200 at the University of Wisconsin–Fox Valley, “We are all living with dementia [in some way]. ... It’s our friends, our neighbors, persons in our communities.”

While much is written about the value of art for children, we hear less about its importance for older adults, particularly those feeling the effects of memory loss. “Especially when words fail, finding other ways to express yourself is hugely important,” argues Johnson.

For SPARK!, McFadden developed an evaluation form for participants, caregivers, and museum volunteers. She’s visited a number of SPARK! locations and has been impressed at the varied ways the program has been implemented.

She notes that while it is often a family member who brings the senior to SPARK!, friends can do it, too. “If you had a committed friend who was willing to do this, it would be win-win all around: fun, enjoyable, a great way to be with your friend, but also a respite for the full-time carer. It would be fabulous if we didn’t just default to the idea that only family members can take care of [persons with] dementia. SPARK! opens up tremendous opportunities for the involvement of friends,” notes McFadden.

Dawn Koceja, early childhood coordinator at the Milwaukee Public Museum, has seen firsthand the powerful ways in which SPARK! can help keep friendships alive in the face of memory loss. Koceja recalls a husband and wife who would bring the wife’s elderly mother, and the mother’s best friend from high school, to the program. While only the mother had dementia,  the SPARK! outing allowed the group to connect in a way that wasn’t just about the disease.

“The four of them met every month and had a great afternoon,” says Koceja. “Sometimes they’d stay in the museum [after SPARK!], or go out to lunch or go shopping. You could just see these women interacting with each other in a really fun way, the conversations they would have during the program. It was a really neat dynamic to watch these high school friends being that close this late in life. That group really touched me tremendously.”

The mother has since passed away, but her daughter and son-in-law have continued to volunteer for SPARK! The daughter has even presented at Alzheimer’s conferences with Koceja.


Growing a network

The Milwaukee Public Museum was one of a cluster of five museums in Wisconsin that were awarded initial planning grants in 2009 by the Helen Bader Foundation to design Meet Me at MoMA-style programming for people in the early to middle stages of dementia. Other institutions were the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Racine Art Museum, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, and the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend.

After their training session in New York, the Wisconsin museum professionals headed back home to figure out how to make SPARK! work in their own settings.

For Koceja and Milwaukee Public Museum, this presented new challenges. “[Ours] was the only natural history museum doing SPARK! at the time, and all the references had been to art museums. For me, logistics was the biggest hurdle.”

By working with Milwaukee-area professionals who deal with dementia on a regular basis, Koceja learned that certain facets of her museum, such as the way lighting and sounds change from floor to floor, could be off-putting to someone with Alzheimer’s.

Koceja created two pilot programs and tested them while continuing her own training. “It’s been a continuum of professional development. Working with such a specific audience, it was important that we did this program professionally and respectfully, and that included getting a lot of training,” she says.

One technique that many SPARK! leaders employ comes from the TimeSlips Creative Storytelling Project, which is based at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee’s Center on Age & Community. TimeSlips was founded in 1998 by the center’s director, Anne Basting, an international leader in connecting the arts and dementia care. Basting, who is also an associate professor of theater at UW–Milwaukee’s Peck School of the Arts, has researched and developed ways of embedding the arts into long-term care, particularly for people with cognitive disabilities.

“TimeSlips opens storytelling to everyone by replacing the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine,” reads the TimeSlips website. Images provide the jumping-off point for people to create stories of their own invention.

Says Basting, “If you think about people with memory loss, their communication systems are failing. What they’ve been relying on their whole lives is precisely where the disease process is revealing itself. And the world outside is cutting off opportunities for meaningful expression,” due to others’ fear and discomfort around memory loss, among other factors. “Creative expression allows them emotional and symbolic language; they can express themselves freely, with no right or wrong.”

Susan McFadden is a trained TimeSlips facilitator, as is Angela Johnson, who has used the technique at the Wisconsin Academy’s James Watrous Gallery, located in downtown Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

Working with Watrous Gallery director Martha Glowacki, Johnson led her SPARK! seniors in discussion of photographs by Tom Jones during his Encountering Cultures exhibition. Jones, a Ho-Chunk photographer, captures scenes of historical re-enactments of the French fur trade era in North America. Many of the re-enactment participants are Caucasians who adopt Native American dress, and Jones’ work probes questions of cultural identity and how we re-tell history. Together, SPARK! participants reacted to questions to create a group story about the people and places depicted; a Girl Scout troop even joined them on one occasion.

Then, in an unusual cross-generational twist, the collaborative story created by SPARK! participants from Jones’ photographs was passed along to students at Shabazz City High School in Madison. The teens then created drawings based on the seniors’ story. In this way, exposure to visual art became the launching pad for the creative efforts of several groups of people.

SPARK! can be a great equalizer, too. As Susan McFadden notes, “[My husband] John and I use this phrase, ‘softening of the categories.’ In a program like SPARK!, much of the time you can’t tell who has dementia and who doesn’t. There are so few opportunities for that to happen, and it’s one of the really positive outcomes that we often think about. It brings people into the community, as part of the community of people who are enjoying art together.”

Jayna Hintz of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum employs a multi-sensory approach. “Within our gallery, we use things like objects to touch, movement and music, passing around things that connect to the artwork. For example, we might listen to a waltz if it ties in with the painting [we are discussing],” she says. “One time, we passed around an orange with cloves in it when looking at a Norman Rockwell. When people smelled it, it really brought the discussion to life,” as people remembered favorite canning recipes and other food-related experiences.

The museum professionals in the SPARK! Alliance continue to meet to share ideas, and they observe each other’s programs whenever possible. There is a shared philosophy running through the work of Basting, McFadden, and SPARK! leaders: despite the significant challenges of memory loss, creative expression and friendship are just as important as ever.

“Art is about the greatest struggles of humankind, of being alive, and that’s a really appropriate things to tackle [in this context],” says Basting. “We have to learn how to incorporate people with memory loss into our communities. People are uncomfortable around intense medical diagnoses, and you can lose sight of the person themselves. This work is about being the person first.”


Jennifer Smith is the former program and publicity director for Academy Evenings, the Wisconsin Academy's series of thought-provoking public talks featuring leading thinkers, researchers and artists.  She has previously worked for Wisconsin Public Television, where she was part of the team that developed and launched PortalWisco

Contact Us

Follow Us

Wisconsin Academy Offices 
1922 University Avenue
Madison, Wisconsin 53726
Phone: 608.733.6633


James Watrous Gallery 
3rd Floor, Overture Center for the Arts
201 State Street
Madison, WI 53703
Phone: 608.733.6633 x25