Art Program in Harlem Strives to Improve Quality of Life for Those Affected by Alzheimer’s and Dementia

Arts & Minds program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

Will Nicholson paints at the Arts & Minds program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

With a plastic well of black ink, a bamboo brush and white paper, Will Nicholson painted his interpretation of a happy face, a sad face, and a face that was lost. He and his wife of 47 years, Joan Nicholson, have been learning about and creating art through the non-profit organization Arts & Minds since it opened its doors in Harlem, N.Y. in 2010.

Now 67 and 71 years old respectively, Joan and Will met when they were just teenagers. “He was more attracted to me,” Mrs. Nicholson said, recalling that she was afraid of her future husband at first because he was older than her. “Then I became attracted to him, too.” They went on to have a son and three grandchildren. Before retiring, Mrs. Nicholson was a lab technician working in medical research and Mr. Nicholson was a legal assistant. “Will loved his work,” said Mrs. Nicholson. “He was a workaholic.”

In 2009, he asked his wife to take him to see a doctor about issues he’d been experiencing with his memory. It was around 2010 or 2011, Mrs. Nicholson explained, that her husband was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

Arts & Minds was created for those with Alzheimer’s and other dementia, and their caregivers, engaging participants in artwork at the Studio Museum in Harlem and allowing them to create and present their own works of art in a small group setting. Medically speaking, it’s difficult to identify any precise effects the arts experience has on the brains of those participants with Alzheimer’s or dementia, said Dr. James Noble, Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Columbia University Medical Center and Co-founder and President of the Board of Arts & Minds. Instead, the goal of the program is to improve the mood and well-being of the participants, both those with dementia and their caregivers, and to help foster emotional connections among them.

“There’s a lot of non-verbal communication that happens through our programs,” Noble explained, “which suits the disease well, because oftentimes, there’s a tendency for patients to get frustrated or upset when they can’t express themselves verbally or when memory is an element that’s missing in their lives. When all that’s expected of them is to simply be in the moment, enjoy themselves and create art, it takes a lot of stress out of the moment for both the patient and the caregiver.”

Today, 5.2 million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease and one in three American seniors die with Alzheimer’s or some other type of dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. By 2050, the current number of those aged 65 years or older with Alzheimer’s is expected to almost triple. Among African-Americans, the rate of the disease is substantially higher than their non-hispanic white counterparts, for reasons that are still unclear to doctors and researchers, Noble said.

One thing that was clear to Noble, however, was the lack of people of color participating in existing art therapy programs in New York City at sites like the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It became clear to me that people who were living in Harlem and disadvantaged communities were not taking advantage of these programs that weren’t occurring in their own neighborhood.” As he was starting a new job at the Harlem Hospital Center, Noble and fellow Co-founder and Executive Director Carolyn Halpin-Healy started Arts & Minds, free to all participants, with a local mission in mind.

“The kinds of barriers that exist between people and museums, these are longstanding barriers,” Halpin-Healy, a career museum educator, explained. “They fall along class lines, they fall along lines that have to do with levels of education, and they fall along race lines as well. So, by being at the Studio Museum in Harlem, we’re automatically removing that barrier.”

Arts & Minds program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

The Nicholsons at the Arts & Minds program at the Studio Museum in Harlem

For the Nicholsons, both longtime Harlem residents, the geographical proximity of the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the museum’s mission to display the work of artists of African descent, sets the Arts & Minds program apart. “One of the things that impresses me most about the art that’s shown here by black artists is that in art, we grow up trying to understand [Pablo] Picasso and [Vincent] van Gogh and we go to see the old masters,” Mrs. Nicholson explained. “We were never really introduced to our black culture and our black artists until coming here to this museum. And that’s a sad commentary about how things are.”

The program has kept her husband engaged and verbal, Mrs. Nicholson explained, and even encouraged him to start creating art at home again, reinvigorating his hobby for working with wood and installing paneling structures around their house. “This one gives me a sense of participation,” Mr. Nicholson said of the Arts & Minds program. “It gives me what I’m looking for as far as being a part of something in the community.”

In addition to the feeling of inclusion and self-expression, there are moments that occur between spousal or family pairs of participants during the program when communication diminished as a result of the disease may be momentarily restored, or emotional connections strengthened, Halpin-Healy explained. “I think the social opportunity has this depth that it has because we are engaged with art, and it is very often about things like truth and beauty. There’s a lot of probing for understanding,” she said.

An unexpectedly profound comment about the art from a participant with Alzheimer’s or dementia, especially those who have become relatively non-verbal or non-social, is an uplifting moment for the whole group, Halpin-Healy explained. “It’s a great thing in terms of changing people’s assumptions about what it means to have dementia,” she said. This is one of the intentions of Arts & Minds, Noble added: “to get [caregivers] to stop looking at the patient as though they’re debilitated, or impaired, and get them really thinking about what made [the person with Alzheimer’s or dementia] who they were, and what connections can still be made despite the difficulties.”

Mrs. Nicholson sat beside her husband in the Studio Museum following a Tuesday afternoon Arts & Minds session. “‘Alzheimer’s’ is a very scary word,” she admitted. “Will has held up very well. He understands a great deal and he has a lot of courage.” Describing his creative process when making art of his own, Mr. Nicholson explained, “I like to look at a blank space within my home and think, ‘What can I fill the void with?’ … The constructed mind can do a lot of things. This is what the museum has contributed to me.”