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Museum program hopes to keep Alzheimer's patients 'In the Moment'

The value of the arts in time of illness has been shown in many situations, but its value for Alzheimer's disease patients is a relatively recent development.

The Carnegie Museum of Art will hold a public workshop Monday to report on and discuss its "In the Moment" program that brings Alzheimer's patients and their caregivers to the museum for a structured tour.

Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia in which cognitive function declines over time. It afflicts more than 15 million Americans.

"Treatment goals for Alzheimer's patients focus primarily on cognitive functions but also on quality of life," says Jennifer H. Lingler, director of education and information for the University of Pittsburgh's Alzheimer Disease Research Center.

"I think that's where something like a gallery tour can potentially play a role. If individuals who are participating in these tours perceive them as enjoyable on any level that's of some value," Lingler says. "The value really lies in the perception of the participant."

More than 190 drugs have been tested for treatment of Alzheimer's disease, but there is little evidence that any of them alter the progress of the disease, according Lingler. Hope in this area lies with the next generation of medications. She'll speak at the workshop on research and clinical perspectives.

The Carnegie Museum's "In the Moment" program began in April 2008. Initially participants were residents at Woodside Place, a Presbyterian senior care facility in Oakmont, but the museum is expanding the program to other facilities.

"Woodside Place heard about New York City's Museum of Modern Art's program (for Alzheimer's patients) and contacted us," says Mary Ann Perkins, head of docent program at the museum. That's when she and her staff began work studying the specific demands the program would create. The learning continues with experience.

The "In the Moment" tours bring six patients and their caregivers to the museum for a one-hour tour.

"We create a theme to follow -- such as animals in art or water in art -- and follow that theme," Perkins says. "We visit all the galleries and see, for example, a tree painted realistically and a tree painted by Mondrian, which is abstract. They see everything.

"We want them to come to the museum to enjoy an hour of their life in a wonderful space. It's a respite, a relief from the challenging complexities of what they're dealing with. It's a chance to perceive something different from what they do in their living room."

"In the Moment" is a worthwhile program, says Bob LeRoy, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Pennsylvania Chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

He calls Alzheimer's disease is a public health epidemic, with a new case diagnosed every 70 seconds.

His group is planning to expand its services to Alzheimer's patients in Southwestern Pennsylvania in spring 2011 by offering its own art program, "Memories in the Making," which involves patients expressing themselves through painting. LeRoy says the program was started in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area of Northeastern Pennsylvania and is "having a very positive effect."

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