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SPARK! programs offer cultural opportunities and dignity to those with memory loss

When Hortonville resident Jean Orbison first began attending SPARK! programs with her husband, Tom, his dementia wasn’t as progressed as it is today. At 93 years old, Tom now spends much of his time at home sleeping and no longer initiates conversations. But Jean says that changes when they attend SPARK!, which are free monthly engagement programs for adults living with early to mid-stage memory loss and their care partners.

“At SPARK! Tom answers questions, like when [the facilitator] asks what he sees in pictures, he always mentions anything that’s yellow because it’s his favorite color,” Jean says.

Each 60 to 90-minute program is led by trained educators who cultivate interactive art experiences at local cultural institutions. There are four SPARK! program sites in the Fox Cities including The Trout Museum of Art and The Building for Kids Children’s Museum in Appleton, The Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh and Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass in Neenah.

Every session begins with a personal greeting by name -a simple, yet significant event for people with dementia, Jean says.

“I can tell that means something to Tom because he straightens up and becomes more alert. And I appreciate that others recognize him,” she says.

After introductions are made, the art educators lead participants through a program that uses sensory stimulation combined with visual art conversations, music, poetry, hands-on art making, movement or creative performances. The programs do not rely on recalling memories, but rather focus on in-the-moment observations.

“SPARK! programs are based on what we can perceive, and utilizing the arts is such a fantastic way to engage all of our senses, as well as our imagination,” says Appleton artist Cristian Andersson, who has been a volunteer SPARK! facilitator in the Fox Cities since 2015. He currently leads four programs a month.

“Because the arts should be for everyone, I feel it’s part of my mission as an artist to make this accessible to people,” he says. “It helps [people with dementia] regain a certain amount of personhood that’s been taken away by this disease.”

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, it was estimated that 115,000 Wisconsin residents had dementia in 2015. By 2040, that number is expected to more than double to 242,000.

Between 2015 and 2040, Wisconsin’s 65 and older population will grow by 640,000, an increase of 72 percent. This growth rate is reflected in the projected increase in dementia cases and creates a critical need for memory care resources now and into the future.

Art therapies, like those offered through SPARK!, have been shown to improve brain function and communication in people with dementia who might otherwise have difficulty expressing themselves. Isolation, a common problem for people with dementia and their families, is known to accelerate symptoms, so social opportunities are even more vital.

“This population, people who are living with memory loss, is large, and growing. SPARK! gives an opportunity to recognize and make connections to so many wonderful people who, as they progress with memory loss, may feel there are less opportunities to engage publicly,” Andersson says.

The COVID-19 pandemic created many challenges and increased isolation risks among those living with dementia.

“During COVID-19, the fear of isolation for individuals became a reality,” says Marci Hoffman, Trout Museum education coordinator. “When people are participating in different events, whether visual art or in nature, socializing and having conversations, it won’t cure memory loss, but it will help slow down the process.

Many SPARK! programs went virtual during the pandemic and while some social aspects were lost on the digital platform, Jean says many remained the same.

“Tom recognizes friends and smiles when he sees them and this showed up particularly during COVID onZoom,” she says. “When a face would pop up on screen, he would smile and he recognized seeing friends.”

Andersson often invites guest artists to co-host the programs he runs. He recently worked with Appleton poet Madelyne R. Sosa for a Zoom session through the Paine Art Center that had participants write a group poem about mornings.

Sosa, whose grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2018, says the experience touched her personally and as an artist.

“No matter the illness, we are all still human. If we don’t have clear memories, we still have sentiments,” she says. “I really think the SPARK! program helps them get back in touch with those aspects of themselves and find little objects that will bring us back to who we are.”

As much as SPARK! focuses on the individual with memory loss, the program is equally beneficial for their care partners and provides a much-needed social outlet.

“We don’t get out much, I’m very confined. I almost feel like a policeman with Tom,” Jean says. “The only other things we do together are activities of daily living, like cooking meals and eating. This gets us out together doing something in an adult setting and it’s a good activity for both of us. Socializing together is really important.”

“People underestimate howmuch physical and emotional energy goes into caring for someone with memory loss,” says Taylor Moeller-Roy, glass studio manager at the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum. “This is an hour where they don’t have to worry about keeping their loved one busy or entertained or safe.”

Other members of the individual’s family are encouraged to attend events as well, says Michelle Sharp, community education coordinator at The Building for Kids.

“The biggest thing for our space is we are really great for intergenerational interaction,” Sharp says. “We had a really great family coming to SPARK! that was a grandma, her son and grandson. This was a space the grandson knew, so when grandma was diagnosed with dementia they could come to a familiar space and have fun with grandma even though she was losing her memory.”
Even though SPARK! programs are not intended to improve memory or even require participants to recall past events, the arts have a way of bringing things to the surface that may have been buried deep in the recesses of a participant’s mind. Andersson has witnessed moments like this on several occasions.
“Music is an interesting thing. I experienced singing with some people who may have had a hard time remembering what they did earlier that day, being able to sing the third, and very obscure to me, verse of some carol,” he says. “There are some connections to the arts that just go so deep into our soul, and as a creative myself, I am so appreciative when I witness the effect.”

Upcoming SPARK! Programs

Safari Vacation
August 4
Take a safari vacation with your imagination, seeing exciting animals and exploring South Africa without having to leave the building. 1pm. The Building for Kids Children’s Museum, Appleton. 734-3226 x 119.
Hmong Story Cloths
August 9
Explore “paj ntaub,” or flower cloth, that has been an integral part of Hmong culture for centuries. 1pm. Trout Museum of Art, Appleton. 733-4089.
Artist Inspired Flower Pots
August 10
As the flowers start to grow more around the Fox Valley, prepare by admiring the flowers in the museum collection and creating your own flower pot. Register for free in advance. 10:30am. Bergstrom-Mahler Museum of Glass, Neenah. 751-4658.


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