Those affected by Alzheimer's often suffer from feelings of isolation, but a Nasher program seeks to create an opportunity for individuals with dementia to engage with art and new ideas.

According to a recent study on human lifestyles, the Association for Psychological Science concluded, “Actual and perceived social isolation are both associated with increased risk for early mortality.” These results remain consistent across gender and racial lines. In fact, isolation ranks equal to or in some cases, higher than, risk factors like smoking or pollution on the health and well-being of individuals. Isolation impacts all areas of the body: emotional, mental, and physical. It can lead to depression, obesity, weakened cognitive abilities and, ultimately, decreased life satisfaction.  

The Reflections Program seeks to foster community for those with Alzheimer’s in partnership with the Duke Family Support Program. It is based on a similar program at the Museum of Modern Art called Meet Me at MoMA.

Senior Brittany Halberstadt, the educational assistant for the Reflections program, said the program is all about empowerment.

“It’s alright if you have a pause or you lose a word or if it takes you awhile to come up with your thought,” she said.

She said that those who come every month become more willing to speak up and engage, showing proof of the program’s impact.

The Reflections program, founded in 2014, consists of free public tours on the fourth Tuesday and group tours for those with dementia and their care partners on the third Tuesday of each month. The public tours are 60 minutes long and involve groups engaging with three to four art pieces in the museum. The group tours offer a similar 60-minute program along with an interactive portion, typically music or art activities that connect to the pieces presented.

Halberstadt recalled one particular instance when the group was listening to a Spanish guitarist and the musician had some extra drums available, and an individual who had not spoken much on the tour came up and played. He started saying that he had been in his cousin’s band in high school and college, a fact that even his wife, who was on the tour with him, did not know. This showed the program’s ability to create new memories and empower those involved. 

Within the Duke community itself, the museum is attempting to strengthen its bonds with the Duke Hospital, studying how the brain sees and appreciates art along with the relation to Alzheimer’s. The Nasher and the hospital even hope to research the impact of the program itself on its members through quantitative methods with hopes to further grow their community and knowledge.

The Nasher wants to expand the program's impact beyond the museum walls into Durham and further to the nation as a whole. The museum strives to make Durham more dementia-inclusive, namely through dementia-friendly training that offers guidance on the stages of dementia, what happens to the human body with dementia and engagement with these individuals. They also hope to add more diversity to the program so that everyone feels welcome in the museum, regardless of race or socioeconomic status.  

On a national level, the Nasher was also the first museum to host the Museums and Dementia Symposium in 2017, bringing together 70 different museum professionals from 23 states and three countries to brainstorm programs and bring together a community. This interaction aided in bringing the Nasher’s work to the global stage on issues associated with dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. 

Beyond its commitment to community and outreach within Durham and the world, the Reflections Program is working to destroy the stigmas attached to Alzheimer’s.

Halberstadt said the program is “inviting [these individuals] to participate and saying they have the power to do that.”

The program is a community of people who understand everyone’s struggles and welcomes them. The museum makes a point of holding the tours when the building is open to the public. Halberstadt said she hopes that other visitors seeing those affected by Alzheimers outside of an assisted living facility or in a nursing home and in the gallery will break down those stigmas and create a more inclusive Durham.