Over the decades that Marie and Bill Fanning raised five children in Northern Virginia, they were regular visitors to the National Gallery of Art. They loved the Wyeth and the Copley paintings, and they watched with interest as the soaring East Building rose in the 1970s. But with so many children to run after, they rushed past many paintings without stopping.
Now retired, they are engaging with their beloved museum in a different way. Marie, 74, was diagnosed five years ago with mild cognitive impairment, and on Monday she and Bill, 76, participated in a new program, “Just Us at the National Gallery of Art,” which leads people with memory loss and their caregivers through an intensive meditation on a few paintings in the collection. The biweekly pilot started in April and runs through July, after which the museum hopes to make it permanent.
In one of the West Building’s galleries, memory loss patients and their caretakers – eleven in all – sat in wheelchairs and folding stools in front of “En route pour la peche,” an 1878 oil painting by John Singer Sargent of women and children walking along a beach in northern France.
“Take a nice deep breath and take in the painting on the inhale,” said Lorena Bradford, the museum’s head of accessible programs. “Let your eyes wander all over the painting, there’s a lot to notice. What’s the subject? Where are we?”
“It’s on the edge of a body of water, but I don’t know where,” said Eduardo Peña, 83, a retired District lawyer who has dementia and was there with his wife Ada, 82, for the second time.
“Is it a family going on a picnic?” asked Bill Fanning. “Looks like maybe the women are getting away from the men for the weekend.”
Bradford offered more prompts. “Imagine that you are one of these women walking here, what would you hear, what would you smell, what would you be feeling?”
To help, she played a recording of Marennes Cancale, an old French song, and passed around two giant conch shells.
The wife of a 90-year-old World War II veteran took his hand and helped him hold a shell up to his ear so he could listen for the ocean. “I got it, I got it,” he said, nodding. “Yep, yep.” For the veteran, whose wife asked that his name not be used, the paintings reflected his life history. At 18, he landed on the beach in Normandy a few weeks after D-Day, and he said Sargent’s painting “nearly resembled what I saw, not all the way, but ninety percent of the way.”
The program was developed with the help of Carolyn Halpin-Healy, a New York City educator and arts administrator who trained the National Gallery staff. Each session has a theme: for the first day it had been family portraits. On Monday the theme was “On the water,” and also included paintings by Mary Cassatt and Claude Monet. The visitors had various stages of memory loss, from a woman with no obvious symptoms to a man who barely lifted his head during part of the tour. To appeal to such a broad range, as well as to their caregivers, Bradford keeps her questions open and picks art that is open to wide interpretation.
“Topics that have a lot of entry points allow for a lot of exploration,” she said. “We invite them to start looking and sharing their ideas, and that works for everybody.”
The subject of dementia is close to Bradford personally – her grandparents had it. In choosing art for the program, she said, two-dimensional works are better than sculpture, but other than that, there are no limits to the themes or styles. “Art brings up a lot of things,” Bradford said. “Art connects people back to who they were.”
At the first session, Avis Brock, an educator at the museum, asked participants which family from the portraits they would have liked to have had dinner with. She played banjo music, prompting one participant to recall how his relatives used to play the banjo.
During Monday’s session, Monet’s painting of Waterloo Bridge in London jogged musical memories for the veteran. “Like a bridge over troubled water, I could lay me down,” he sang, and then segued into “Lili Marlene,” a popular World War II-era song, in German.
Others, like Marie Fanning, stay quiet during the tours. But they still seem to like them, Brock said. “Just because someone’s not participating doesn’t mean they’re not engaged.”
For caregivers too, whether family members or hired professionals, the sessions can offer a respite from their difficult emotional and physical tasks. “Caregiver burnout is a real problem,” Bradford said. “This gives caregivers a chance to reconnect with those people.”
Marcy Docter, who attended the first session in April with her husband Charles, 85, a retired lawyer with cognitive impairment, said it perked him up. “He was able to identify George Washington” in a painting, she said. “I don’t know how much he’s getting out of it, but it’s the social thing. Just being with other people and hearing a leader ask questions offered some sort of stimulation.”
In the second session, Charles Docter had lot to say about Cassatt’s “The Boating Party,” including what he saw as “a real intent of the parties on the boat to do some good.” His caregiver, Janet Nyarko, who was there with him, marveled at the effect the art seemed to have. “Normally he’ll be sleeping, and today he was quite awake,” she said.
Docter’s son Henry, who was also there Monday, said the benefits extended to him as well. “It’s life-giving for the caregivers, too, to see and appreciate art,” he said. “It boosts your brain and your soul on a very deep level.”
For the Fannings, being at the National Gallery also struck an additional personal chord. Marie, who once a special education teacher, “was working with people with disabilities (and) she got somebody a job here in the mailroom, twenty years ago,” Bill Fanning said. “She’s raised five kids and eleven grandkids—This is a new phase in her life, in our life…” His voice choked up.
“This was something we should have done a lot of times,” he said, “but we were in too much of a hurry to stop.”