Gauguin with the Grandparents

The petite, septuagenarian lady opened her bag to reveal two intricately sewn, foot-long, felt trees that would go on either side of the stupa the class had stitched.

“They have 126 leaves each and took me three days to make,” she said. She beamed as the other students at Auspicious Stitches, a workshop offered at the Rubin Museum of Art, showered her with praises.

The Rubin, home to an impressive collection of Himalayan and Indian art, is one of a growing number of museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), that offer special tours, services, and workshops for older visitors, as well as for those with hearing and visual disabilities, and even dementia and Alzheimer’s. Both of these museums provide sign language guides and Touch Tours, which enable guests to feel sculptures while the guides discuss them.

On October 1, the Rubin hosted its monthly Senior Day, which offers visitors over the age of 65 free entry to the galleries, along with guided tours, movie screenings, and creative art sessions.

“It’s important as a museum to engage the community as a whole,” said Talia Shulze, assistant manager of media relations at the Rubin. “We want people of all ages to come and experience the art here. Senior Day is one of our busiest days of the month.”

The Auspicious Stitches program allows participants to work on a communal piece inspired by the museum’s collection. The class, held at the neighboring Rubin Education Center, hummed with the sound of sewing machines and the chatter of the students.

Amid the colorful swatches and bundles of yarn was Arlene Rubin, 77, an avid quilter and former professor at Brooklyn College. “I love this place. Someone told me about it, otherwise I would have never known it was here,” she said. “It’s a social thing to do – people mix and sometimes go out to lunch after class.”

Some members, like Lira Do Couto, take the activity very seriously, “I need more time to finish my piece, I went to sleep at 2 a.m. last night.” Do Couto said she liked to come to the class because she met people from different backgrounds and found the staff to be extremely supportive.

“I recommend this to a lot of people. If you like to sew then this is a great place to be, it’s like our little community,” she said.

Art therapy, as opposed to viewing art, is very beneficial for seniors, according to Raquel Chapin Stephenson, an art therapist and part-time faculty at NYU Steinhardt School of Culture.

“Making art involves taking a risk. Many older adults have never made art or invested much time in it, so it can be intimidating,” said Stephenson. “It can also motivate an older person. For some, it’s just pushing through arthritic pain to get themselves out of their home and to the art group, for others, it means finding new ways to express themselves when they have lost vision or mobility.”

Many museums also have free programs specifically for visitors with dementia or Alzheimer’s. MoMA has the Alzheimer’s Project, supported by the MetLife Foundation, which gives patients and their caregivers a chance to develop their art vocabulary through discussions. “The programs are very popular,” said Meryl Schwartz, assistant educator, Alzheimer’s Project. “We worked with The Mount Sinai Hospital and the Alzheimer’s Association to recognize some of the symptoms we might encounter and learn effective communication techniques to deal with them.”

Another program, Meet Me at MoMA, is designed especially for dementia patients and is conducted during non-public hours to allow for a more focused and educational experience. In 2009, MoMA’s Department of Education published “Meet Me: Making Art Accessible to People with Dementia”, a guide to develop art programs for dementia patients, which included information from an NYU study where visitors of the program rated their experience. A majority of the participants said they would return to the museum, though they had been hesitant to do so earlier. This increased desire to return was influenced by a welcoming environment, social interaction and intellectual stimulation.

“There is an improved relation between the patient and caregiver,” said Schwartz, ” And the caregiver felt better about their employment situation after the visits.”

“I think any kind of stimulation, in any modality, is great,” said Judy Russo, a first time visitor at the Rubin Senior Day tour. “Sometimes seniors need an invitation or a push, so they like it when there are programs just for them. Plus, they’re always looking for a bargain.”

Published in The Midtown Gazette – October, 2012

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