• Marilyn Gardner Woods

Connected through the art

A few years ago, I went through training with a San Diego Alzheimer’s organization to learn to tour Alzheimer’s patients in the art museum. I have loved doing these tours, although they don’t come up often.


In the training, docents are instructed to select a theme that is appropriate and relevant for individuals with cognitive impairment. The directions from the professionals are clear and concise:


Tour large, easy-to-see paintings and sculpture.


Talk loudly and slowly.


Ask concrete questions, mixing open-ended with yes/no, that invite exploration of the work.


Do your best to “evoke memories.”

In my past tours with Alzheimer’s patients, I have highlighted selections from our American Art Collection. There is a built-in familiarity, I reasoned. Most museum goers know and love the works of important American artists such as Georgia O’Keeffe and her oversized flowers and the extraordinary portraits by John Singer Sergeant.



A favorite of mine, Everett Gee Jackson’s Sailor Beware, always elicits awareness and conversation. A San Diego scene, a young sailor sits with his back to the viewer on a bench in the harbor. An alluring woman in a filmy pale yellow summer dress stands facing him, a palm tree behind her. Painted in 1934, it beautifully represents San Diego and its military presence. I have never ceased to be amazed as I watch both men and women, plagued with the dreadful disease engage; their eyes light up with recognition not only of the subject matter, but of the era.

When I began to prepare for my recent tour, I panicked briefly learning that our American galleries would be closed on the scheduled date for a new exhibition installation. How to restructure my tour? What works of art would I highlight to elicit memories and hopefully create interest for these museum guests. I wanted to connect these visitors to the works of art. I decided to tour the European galleries on the second floor, hoping some had travelled internationally while they were able.


I met the group and we gathered in the rotunda of The San Diego Museum of Art, a Spanish Colonial style architectural marvel, set in the center of Balboa Park. After I welcomed them, a group of fourteen men and women accompanied by three guide caretakers, I asked a question to test the waters. “Have any of you ever had a pet?” One of the three, probably to prime the pump and help me out, spoke from the side, “I used to ride horses all the time.”

Lots of smiles and nodding heads.


“I have a chocolate lab – her name is Lulu,” offered a middle aged, withdrawn sort of woman, her shoulders draped in a fringed, rose colored shawl.”

“My cat lives with my daughter in Ramona, a pleasant woman to my right purred.”

“My dog was hit by a car on our street,” said a tall, slight guy in a dark blue baseball hat that said TIN CAN on the front. “He died.”



Their collective enthusiasm for animals was apparent, so I altered my plan slightly and invited them into the newly installed exhibition of Arthur Putnam bronzes. Putnam, who has been hailed as the greatest sculptor of California and “the American Rodin,” crafted wild animals rendered with great vitality and expressiveness—pumas, buffalos, coyotes, lions, horses and more. The polished and spirited bronzes were of brownish patina, some tabletop, some immense. Seeing my tour group was instantly engaged, I asked, “How do you think this puma would feel if you were able to touch it?” “Cool, cold, hard, smooth,” they volunteered, very tempted to touch. Not allowed, unfortunately.


We then headed up the grand staircase to the European galleries. As we walked, I noticed the word Navy below Tin Can man’s hat. At home later I learned that “tin can sailor” is a term used to refer to sailors on destroyers. Being the wife of a marine and the daughter of an army guy, I learned something new today.


The group moved slowly, one of the main reasons for selecting fewer works for the tour. A few straggled far behind.


When they all congregated once again, I stood in front of a large Bernardo Bellotto scene of people strolling in front of the shimmering palaces of Venice floating between the lagoon and sky. “I know—that’s St. Mark’s Square,” I heard.

Sure enough, we were standing in front of Bernardo Bellotto’s The Molo from the Basin of San Marco, Venice, a most recognizable view for many in my group, who offered comments and remembrances. In Bellotto’s painting, done over one hundred and fifty years before Alzheimer’s symptoms invaded my friends’ brains, two dozen gondolas float in the sparkling canals.



Don, the TIN CAN guy who remained in the back, boasted. “I’ve been there.” Several smiling faces nodded in agreement.

“I rode in a gondola and the gondolier sang a beautiful song—O Sole Mio,” a delighted petite lady with perfectly permed short white hair remembered aloud. I marveled as they recollected.


The mounting enthusiasm of my group inspired me. Off to the Flemish still-life paintings with flowers and butterflies, fruits and fish. Once again, they were overjoyed at the recognizable country kitchen items, much like a table from their past.

“That’s a wine jug.”

“My mother had a pewter pitcher just like that one.”

The third chaperone, a slender athletic woman younger than most of the group, chimed in, “Copper pans are nice for cooking.”


Moving slowly, my group now studied a sun-splashed seaside scene painted by Joaquin Sorolla, the great Spanish painter of the 19th century who specialized in painting beach scenes of his beloved Valencia. Sorolla’s little blond child, looking much like a Gerber baby—healthy, chubby and happy—stands in the sand while his nanny dries his bottom.



Moving to Zurbaran’s Virgin and Child with Saint John close by, several in my group studied a Renaissance painting of baby Jesus nestled in his mother’s arms. A silence prevailed until the same young caregiver raised her hand and identified the saint for the group. She knew her saints, perhaps a Catholic, I mused.

Just when we had finished our discussion of the babies in art, remembering my instructions, I decided the group had reached its limit. As I opened my mouth to speak, a beautiful little miracle occurred.


A pleasant young couple with a delightful cooing baby in a stroller approached The Arrest of Christ by Hieronymus Bosch nearby. I asked and they agreed to let my group ooooh and aaah over their beautiful little baby. Magical. Even my Tin Can man made his way to the front of the line to take a peek. One by one, the Alzheimer’s patients took their turn observing a living work of art up close as the young parents beamed.

As the tour wound down, I could tell my guests were tired. The lead caregiver stepped to the front of the group to announce their instructions for leaving the museum and boarding their bus. As the group went down the stairs, I spoke to each caregiver, thanking them for the work that they do.


My heart became very heavy when I spoke the third woman with the short, spiky hair—the one who had commented on the copper pans.

“Are you on staff or a volunteer,” I asked.

She paused a moment and said, “Oh no, I’m with the group. And this is the best day I’ve ever had. Thank you so much.”


A short time later, I learned the young woman had early-onset Alzheimer, a vicious, rapid killer.

Throughout my tour, it was this young woman, clad in baggy jeans and a lavender sweatshirt, who participated and contributed; incredibly bright, interested, and engaged.

The power of art is extraordinary.

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