SPARK! benefits individuals with memory loss

Dementia doesn’t have to be a barrier to experiencing the arts. Caregivers and individuals living with memory loss can now experience programming in the Fox Cities that opens doors to “engage in lively discussions, art making and multi-sensory activities,” explains The Trout Museum of Art’s website.

“I like to describe SPARK! as an opportunity,” says Oliver Zornow, education manager at The Trout Museum. “That’s part of the reason we do programming like this is to get them out.”

Locally, the pilot program is a collaboration between The Trout, History Museum at the Castle, and The Building for Kids Children’s Museum. The free pilot programming is made possible due to funding awarded to the museums by the Helen Bader Foundation and will last approximately a year and a half.

“The SPARK! project connects the museums with local partners in healthy aging to bring the model to the Midwest. The Alzheimer’s Association is assisting with training and support,” according to the Alzheimer’s Association website.

The Trout Museum’s SPARK! programming in October, held during the “Under the Hat: The Many Worlds of Dr. Seuss” exhibit, introduced Seuss, along with a discussion about how color ties to emotion and what it sounds like. Some SPARK! participants have diminished vision, so it was important to extend the conversation beyond sight, Zornow shares.

“Another purpose for doing a program like this is getting people comfortable working with a person with memory loss,” says Pamela Williams-Lime, president of The Trout. “Oliver did a great job of drawing people out and having them participate.”

The History Museum at the Castle also hosted a gathering in November in the Siekman Room. Curator Emily Rock had teaching artifacts including fur from a beaver, coyote and skunk available to pass among the participants.

Photo courtesy of the History Museum at the Castle

Photo courtesy of the History Museum at the Castle

“Everyone got a chance to feel that,” she explained. “We had a discussion about the topic of fur trade in the area.” The room features stained glass windows designed by local artist Thomas Dietrich, which a few of the day’s participants knew. One of the windows highlights the fur trade.

The SPARK! programming aims to decrease the stigma surrounding memory loss, make it less scary and help individuals feel comfortable in another environment, including non-traditional locations like The Building for Kids.

“What’s interesting about the program itself is the dynamic of how it fits into a children’s museum,” says Michael Wartgow, chief operating officer.

The Building for Kids is the second children’s museum in the state, behind the Madison Children’s Museum, to participate in SPARK!. Wartgow wanted to “have an environment that wasn’t sterile,” but rather engaging and dynamic without judgement.

“Our environment is a collective environment,” he adds. “We’re family focused. … Children have caretakers and what we have in the SPARK! program is people who have caretakers as well.”

People with short-term memory loss are still often able to tap into their long-term memory, including activities they did as a child, Wartgow notes.

“To see it at work and at play is amazing,” he says of SPARK!. “Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s a moving experience.”

A schedule for future events is in development. The collaborating museums are hoping to seek funding and continue programming beyond the pilot program. The public is welcome to visit for more information.

—By Amy Hanson

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