The Azure scheme: A window on the world

Bairbre-Ann Harkin with Irish Dementia Working Group on an Azure tour at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.Picture: Killian Waters

The Azure scheme helps people with dementia to enjoy galleries and museums, writes Marjorie Brennan

When Bairbre-Ann Harkin was doing an internship at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the things that made a huge impact on her was its programme for people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s, called Meet me at MoMA.

When she returned to Ireland and began working with the Butler Gallery in Kilkenny as education curator, establishing a similar initiative was top of her list. The gallery began collaborating with the Irish Museum of Modern Art and piloted the Azure programme in 2012. 

It is now in operation in more than ten cultural institutions throughout Ireland. Harkin now works with IMMA, having been appointed an arts and ageing fellow with the institution at the start of this year.

Obviously, a key element of IMMA’s mission is getting an audience for art. It was seeing the demographic of people living with dementia and people caring for them as an increasing audience that would need to be catered for and it decided to bring somebody in whose sole responsibility would be to look at this programming and see how IMMA could best deliver it,” says Harkin.

SOCIAL OUTLET

Dementia and Alzheimer’s can be very isolating for those living with the condition and their carers.

Cultural activities such as going to a gallery or museum can act as a much-needed social outlet.

“As the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland said in their submission to Government for the National Dementia Strategy [2014], people feel like they are pushed to the margins of their community when they receive a diagnosis. When you consider the personhood of the person living with dementia, there is definitely a need for stimulating activity. A museum is one of those places where people can make connections with the world around them through art. It is exciting to consider the museum as a space where people can feel at the heart of things again,” says Harkin.

A key component of the Azure programme tour is that it stays out of lecture mode and instead facilitates discussion, she says.

It is not the case that the facilitator gives a whole load of information about the artist and the group is just expected to take it in passively. It is based on the Meet Me At MoMA model and is a really active, participative process.

"We start by taking some time to look at the art object, whether it be a painting, sculpture or installation. The pace of the tour is nice and gentle, and it enables everyone to participate on an equal platform — there is no hierarchy between the person who is not living with dementia and the person who is living with dementia.

“We start by looking, then we describe what we see together. From there, once we have discussed what we are looking at, the different elements, maybe the formal aspects, we then move into interpreting the work together. This is where it gets really exciting. It is a very open discussion, there is no right or wrong answer or one way of interpreting the work.”

While many people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s can access therapeutic activities in daycare or residential programmes, independent cultural outings, where possible, are vital in the sense that they exist outside of the clinical realms of the condition.

“We get a lot of people who are consumate gallery-goers and this has been an interest of theirs all their life and they want to continue that. But we also get a lot of people who are doing this as a new interest because it is something completely new that they can do now, as they are, and it’s not part of their diagnosis,” says Harkin.

“Sometimes when people are accessing supports in residential care facilities or daycare, the opportunity to express negative feelings doesn’t come about.

“The museum is a great space to be able to say you don’t like something and here’s why and be really honest about that. It can prompt really interesting discussions.”

According to Ciarán McKinney of Age and Opportunity, one of the partners in the Azure programme, the fact that looking at an artwork is not reminiscence-based is a core element of the experience.

“The one thing about being presented with a piece of art is you don’t have to have memory. It is a shared experience in the present moment, for the person living with dementia and their carer.”

POWERFUL IMPACT

While the experience itself is a powerful one, the impact of a gallery or museum visit can be long-lasting, he says.

All of the research shows that the effect on the person living with dementia is much greater than the actual moment. People are often described as having a really positive mood afterwards, that could last for a number of days,” says McKinney.

He adds that the programme also helps in the vital and continuing

effort to normalise the participation of people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s in public events and spaces.

That is probably one of the most crucial aspects of how dementia will affect a whole family… people feel awkward around how to handle it — ‘I’ll cross the road before she sees me’ kind of thing. People need to know there is nothing wrong with chatting away to a person with dementia. We know the rules of engagement whenever we are out socially, and I suppose when you are living with dementia, you have probably forgotten those rules,” says McKinney.

He says it is hoped to acquire further funding this year to deliver more training so the network of institutions participating in the Azure programme can be expanded. The programme is already running at institutions including the Hunt Museum in Limerick, and the West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen.

The next phase for Harkin is a focus group in the autumn involving people living with Alzheimer’s and dementia and carers.

“We don’t want to be programming for people without having their voice being considered in the development of the programme. That is why the focus group is going to be so important for us. We are going to test out

different methodologies, how what we are doing at the moment could be improved or how it is working and take that kind of feedback from the focus group,” she says.

RIGHT TO PARTICIPATE

For now, the rewards of the programme have been obvious for Harkin and the people who have benefitted from it.

“Just because you have a diagnosis of dementia, that shouldn’t impact on your right to access these national cultural institutions and collections that are here for the public, that right still is yours.

“It is about looking at the individual as a person, with a range of needs and interests, as we all are. People really appreciate a sociable activity they can do with one another that isn’t focused on dementia or

Alzheimer’s. When people are here, the Alzheimer’s and dementia fades into the background and it becomes about the art.”

www.alzheimer.ie; www.ageandopportunity.ie; www.imma.ie

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