The Billings Outpost

Art tours help retain memories

By MARTIN MULL - For The Outpost

Artist Adonna Khare’s “Elephants,” a prize-winning large-scale paper drawing on display at the Yellowstone Art Museum, was an ideal central stop for seven visitors from the Eagle Cliff nursing care facility.

The massive, adorable elephants are intertwined with a menagerie of animals. It’s certainly a must see.

The art piece pours out warmth and harmony, without class distraction. All the creatures belong, all are engaged.

Tour founder Karen Fried brought the Eagle Cliff residents to the display on the museum’s second floor and first let them gaze. And gawk. And admire. Most smiled. Eyes lit up.

Then Fried solicited the group. She asked each individually to opine, those who wished.

What did they see? What is happening in the picture? Did they see any tiny, hard-to-spot creatures? Anything unique that can be observed?

She commented and questioned softly, slowly. Patient for responses. Fried didn’t proceed until all had a chance to speak. To be part of the engagement. Nobody cut off in their say. No rush to go on to the next exhibit.

Fried worked for more than 20 years as an executive director of assisted living memory care in Southern California before retiring to Montana to be near family 11 years ago.

“I saw firsthand how you could stimulate people with memory loss, to keep them engaged, keep them calm, and most importantly to take note and treat them like adults, where their opinion counts,” Fried said during one of her recent tours.

Fried, while never an artist, always loved and studied art. In retirement, she traveled to Europe with her husband and saw the world’s great museums - Louvre and Musee D’Orsay. And it got her to thinking.

Why not create an interactive art tour for older people, those who suffered strokes, have circulation problems, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, many who suffer memory loss. A program to keep residents at nursing care, assisted living or retirement facilities engaged and feeling like they are still part of the community. All the while enjoying the wonderful world of art.

Fried worked with the museum’s director of education Linda Ewert, and two years ago the program launched its first tour. They’ve done about 40 tours since then.

The tours are free of charge. They last about an hour, with a tea, coffee and cookies get-together afterwards. Fried takes seven to 10 residents on each tour.

“Karen does an excellent job,” said Eagle Cliff activity director Carla Christensen. “She knows her stuff, but more than anything, Karen talks to the residents. Whenever we want to butt in and talk for them, she stops us, and says, please, let them talk. So we just do the pushing (of wheelchairs) and that’s fine with us.”

Christensen brings over a staff of four to be part of Fried’s tours. In addition, two other docents from the art museum join, adding to a warm and secure environment for the visiting residents.

“Karen chooses just a few pieces in the museum because this gives the residents a change to process and think about what they are seeing and feeling,” said Laurie Schmidt, a retired school teacher who’s known Fried for seven years and helps with the tours. “She really wanted to make this work.”

And it has, as evidenced by the Eagle Cliff staff. Activity aide Kristi Rudolph remembers the group’s last tour.

“Two of our residents, Cece Ensrud and Julie Benson, talked for a good two hours afterwards about the tour,” Rudolph said. “And it inspired both of them to begin doing art work again.”

Benson was on the recent tour again.

“I do draw, but I’m not very good,” said an engaged Benson. “But I’m enjoying this immensely. I just love it. There’s such a variety here, and there so much creativity that the artists use.”

Fried said nursing care, assisted living, retirement center and church organizations can contact the Yellowstone Art Museum for information about future interactive art tours.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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