Back in May, 2011, Dara and I were invited to MoMA to a symposium centered on engaging people living with Alzheimer’s in the arts. Sweet Readers has just completed its first pilot at the American Folk Art Museum (AFAM) and the Jewish Museum was planning its first program to bring people living with Alzheimer’s or some form of dementia into the museum after hours with their care partners to enjoy a facilitated experience with the various works. It was an exciting time and groundbreaking in many ways and museums from around the world gathered to share their experiments and discoveries in an immersive two days which inspired many wonderful partnerships over the years. Dara was and continues to be an extremely warm and generous person who offered to pilot Sweet Reader at The Jewish Museum even before her own program was launched! During the subsequent years, hundreds of Sweet Readers and their adult partners have bonded with each other, the museum, the facilitators and the art. It has felt like family.
I have countless memories of breakthroughs, laughter, celebrations and community. Two stand out immediately: The first, in our second year, Frannie was paired with 6th grade Sweet Readers Addie in one of our after school programs at the museum. Frannie was a dance teacher from orange County who had moved to Manhattan to live with her daughter and son-in-law. Frannie loved children and was frequently surrounded by them in our programs, eager listeners to her many stories. Frannie had taken a fall and had a challenging hospital experience which left her practically catatonic when she returned home. We insisted she continue with the programs and for the first five of six sessions, Addie just leaned in and worked with Frannie, talking to her even though Frannie’s face appeared to be blank. Then in session six – in the studio, as Addie was leaning in, Frannie started to sing! The rest of the participants joined in and soon Frannie was not only singing, she was talking again!
The second memory was also in our second year, in a school program. 6th grader Anna was paired with Franklin and the session was in the galleries, before a huge video installation of performers doing a slow movement – similar to tai chi. Suddenly Anna and Franklin stood up from their seats and started to dance. Then two-by-two the other partners stood up to dance! It was beautiful – so much joy filled the space.
I asked Dara four questions; here are her responses: