NCCA Pre-conference: Delighted my Senses and Topped my Expectations

 “Caregiving for People with Memory Loss: The Basics in Using the Arts for Family and Professional Caregivers,” was one of two daylong events at the pre-conference for the NCCA’s first Leadership Exchange and Conference that took place in Washington, D. C. on June 11. The title hinted at a weighty, information crammed session with a PowerPoint and lots of bullets. What I experienced as a participant was anything but.

At the Phillips Collection, a museum in Washington D.C. with a modern collection, the day began in a most unconventional way with Maria Genné of KairosAlive, an intergenerational dance company home-based in Minneapolis, leading a movement and breathing exercise to literally set the stage for the rest of the day. Again, more movement, culminating in actual dancing (including wheel-chair participants) after lunch, replacing the typical sleepiness at that time of day with energy and alertness.

Peter Newhouse, M.D., Professor of Neurology at ¬¬¬Case Western Reserve University, offered another surprise. His brief keynote highlighted the need to “challenge the scientific/medical models of health.”  He suggested focusing on the whole person and what they can actually do rather than their limitations. He made the point that even when people have advanced symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, they can be wonderful storytellers, a gift that provides meaning in their lives, and by extension, positive ways of communicating. Newhouse summed it up: “The anecdote is the antidote.”

The day continued in a similar vein. Gary Glazner, a New York poet, helped the audience animate and then act out a few spontaneously generated poems. The event involved all attendees, sitting in a circle of chairs, as residents in an assisted living space might do. It was engaging, fun, and made the point better than any lecture. You can fully involve even those with significant cognitive limitations by building an activity around dynamic story telling, singing and gesturing in the here-and-now.

Other show-and-tell happenings revolved around sustained looking at works of art and then eliciting viewers’ observations, associations and feelings about what they saw. It was cued by art therapists and other museum personnel who understood the possible limitations of participants who might be restricted to concrete thinking. Their questions facilitated emotional involvement and lively discussion resulted. The facilitators were careful to both motivate and reassure those who spoke, reminding us all that there are no right and wrong ways to view art. Frankly, as someone who is not very visually oriented, I found the experience useful in understanding the particular art pieces in ways I might otherwise have just sailed past and glossed over.

The second half of the experience involved creating visual art. Whether wheel chair bound or memory impaired I could see where this activity would be engaging to anyone, no less the cognitively impaired. Provide the tools, the paper, the encouragement, even hand guiding, then watch the art happen! We are all creative beings and when the circumstances are right, our inner artists emerge.

This point continued to be made throughout the day: engage, direct and support the emerging artist and create joy in the moment. As with all similar endeavors that involve art and creativity, the objective outcomes continue to be illusive to measure. “The arts don’t need to mimic science,” according to one of the speakers. We need to think about art as a way to enhance life, not treat disease. Regardless of diagnosis, we come to art with rich experiences, with unique ways of seeing the world, and sometimes even with scant memories or limited abstract thinking ability. It is these perceptions that inform and color our inventions. Mostly, they are a valid way to spend time.

While research continues to operationally define terms like “meaning” and “satisfaction” and conducts the trials and double-blind studies necessary to validate an intervention, countless individuals can benefit in the meantime from programs like the ones at the Phillips Collection and the IONA Senior Services in Washington, D.C.


Francine Toder, Ph.D., is the author of The Vintage Years: Finding Your Inner Artist (Writer, Musician, Visual Artist) After Sixty (2013). She is an emeritus faculty member at California State University Sacramento and a clinical psychologist recently retired from private practice. Toder is also the author of When Your Child Is Gone: Learning to Live Again and, Your Kids Are Grown: Moving On With and Without Them. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and practices the cello daily. You can contact her at, find her on Twitter @DocToder or follow her at Huffington Post 50.

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