Art Builds Bridges Across the Isolation of Dementia

Elysian Koglmeier | August 8, 2023

Arts & Minds executive director and co-founder, Carolyn Halpin-Healy, leads a close-looking session with Arts & Minds participants in a museum gallery. Image credit: Fran Kaufman 

The Arts & Minds program unlocks creativity and community for adults with memory loss and their caregivers. 

Let’s begin with a story.

Arts & Minds executive director and co-founder, Carolyn Halpin-Healy, vividly describes an impactful experience from an arts and dementia program she facilitated while at The Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“I brought a group of adults with dementia and their caregivers to a painting, Jean-François Millet’s Haystacks: Autumn, where there are gigantic grainstacks, a village on the periphery, a dynamic sky. We explored it slowly. One person became very animated. I couldn’t understand her due to her Aphasia. But she relaxed after engaging.

Her husband came up later to explain that his wife was a shepherdess in Israel when she was a young girl. 

This woman had a memory, but she could not express it. Her husband interpreted and the rest of us, including caregivers and people with dementia, were there to hear it.

That moment blew up the  whole idea that a person with dementia is ‘not there anymore.’ That she is somehow not herself.” 

Carolyn brought many diverse groups to Haystacks: Autumn as a museum educator and lecturer at The Met. But she was amazed by the attentiveness of participants when The Met started a program for adults with dementia in 2008. 

15 years later, Carolyn leads Arts & Minds, a not-for-profit organization committed to improving quality of life for people living with memory loss, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias through engagement with art.

I love being in that space between people and art–that powerful moment when someone has a transformative experience,” shares Carolyn. 

Arts & Minds partners with New York City-based museums to provide meaningful art-centered activities that create positive emotional and cognitive experiences, enhance verbal and non-verbal communication, reduce isolation and build community. Their programs empower people with dementia, family members, professional caregivers and educators to strengthen social, emotional and spiritual bonds by engaging with art.  


Art reminds you that you are not your diagnosis.

Arts & Minds is about art and people. In the program, you are not your diagnosis. You get to be yourself. 

Carolyn shares the stigmas that they combat in their Arts & Minds programs:  “Alzheimer’s and other memory loss diseases are stigmatized and met with much fear. If you’re diagnosed with dementia, people relate to you differently. Those with memory loss, and their caretakers, become isolated. Friends stop calling. People who know and love those afflicted expect less of them.”

The Art & Minds programs push against ageism and infantilism, which older adults are subjected to a lot. Carolyn asserts: “At Arts & Minds, we are creating an adult space.”

Close-looking with Arts & Minds participants. Image credit: Fran Kaufman 


Art is not prescriptive. 

At the core of each program is an activity–an experience of collective looking and interpretation. 

The activity is about an aesthetic experience. It is not dependent on memory. It may involve memory, but it does not require it. Often the experience stimulates memory. 

When the adults share their observations about the painting the interpretations are really broad. The interpretations of the art can be personal, like the shepherdess moment. They can be connected to history, memory, or ideas. For some, it may just be the pleasure of the object. “That paint is gorgeous.” “The way the artist has used red and orange really speaks to me.” 

Doing this as a group and hearing one another, opens access to the object for everyone. Carolyn has heard revelations like, "I never saw that detail until you mentioned it."

Then personal connections open up. When looking at a colorful painting with flowers, participants may talk about flower gardens. Then that segues to vegetable gardens. Next, someone is talking about their grandmother’s canning in Virginia and another shares, “Mine canned in Harlem too.” Next thing you know everyone is communing over canning. 

"The experience of everyone enriches everyone,” shares an Arts & Mind participant.


Art holds your attention.

Carolyn shares the power of closelooking in her sessions. “The issue of attention is important with memory loss. It’s hard to focus and pay attention. But art holds your attention and it’s worth the effort. I am convinced that this mutual sharing–this collective looking at a single object–there is an energetic forcefield coursing through the participants.”


Artists benefit from the arts and dementia programs as well.

“Artists want attention for their art. They make art so people can attend to it,” asserts Carolyn. She explains how participating artists, who have opened their studio for virtual visits,  have learned things about their own art. They’ve been treated to a kind of attention and feedback that they otherwise might not receive. Their show might hang on a wall and they’ll get critique from a review and that’s it.  

With the Arts & Minds program, artists can have adults sitting in front of their piece for an hour and a half with rapt attention and commentary. 

Image credit: Arts & Minds


Participants continue the conversation in the studio.

Look at art. Talk about art. Make art.

After the gallery experience, everyone can participate in an art workshop. Carolyn shares that Arts & Minds has a particular approach. “Knowing that we are working with individuals with memory loss and older adults, we want to make sure that they are respected and set up for success. We provide good quality materials and We don’t do a step-by-step art project, which might be hard for a person with a memory disorder to follow.”

Instead, the participants are given a prompt with a motivating question. We’re searching for the analog of the gallery experience, an open-ended, creative exploration. The motivating question might be built on formal properties of the work of art like materials or it could be more poetic like, “When do you feel free?”

Participants provide a multitude of artistic responses. It could be autobiographical, figurative, or just a wash of color on paper. The teaching artist has no preconceived expectations as the facilitator. They stress that there are no mistakes. Participants can experiment with materials and create art in a supportive atmosphere.


Neurologic disease can transform creativity.

We shouldn’t discount art made by those with memory loss. Have you heard how Willem de Kooning’s Alzheimer’s changed his artistic style in his later years? Research shows that brain changes can promote visual creativity.

Artwork made by Arts & Minds participant, Polly Runyon. Watercolor on paper.


Use art to reduce isolation and build community. 

Often in the realm of arts and health, the focus is on the patient. But, what about the caretakers? The rigors of caretaking are very substantial. The author of this article and Carolyn know this personally. 

Caretaking can be isolating. But within an Arts & Minds program, the caretakers can either attend in a museum or join online and participate side by side with others. They get a reprieve.  

Carolyn confirms the results: “We see a reduction in depression and isolation for caretakers.” 

There’s also an improvement of mood for adults with dementia and their caregivers. “There's an emotional carryover from the stimulus of art. You leave the museum and you're in a good mood,” shares Carolyn. Research has shown a reduction in apathy for the person with dementia.

A caretaker shares the joys of making art with his wife. “Arts & Minds brought Lynn back to me. Lynn was her creative self in the context of the program." They could once again enjoy creativity and life together. 


There have been studies about the positive effects of art making and art engagement within arts and health. If interested in learning more, you can find studies on the National Organization of Arts and Health’s website.

Continue your arts and health journey with Artwork Archive by reading our e-guide, Arts & Healing: How the Arts Contribute to Health and Wellbeing.

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