Seeing Beyond Illness: A Year of ARTZ at Fleisher

In art centers and museums across the region, ARTZ Philadelphia provides free programming and offers opportunities for self-expression for people with dementia and their care partners. Unlike similar programs across the country, ARTZ is the only organization that works with people from initial diagnosis all the way through hospice care.

A typical ARTZ Philadelphia program is based on both conversation and visual art, says the organization’s founder and executive director, Susan Shifrin.

“In some cases, verbal conversation is not an option, but there are all sorts of engagements and conversations that don’t involve words,” she says. “At a typical program, you might see someone smiling or making gestures to convey what they want to convey. That’s as much conversation as anything else.”

Fred and Arleen Weinstein first attended ARTZ programming in December 2014. Despite a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease four years earlier, Arleen’s humor and insights quickly became hallmarks of the program and the couple of 54 years hardly missed a session until her death in 2017.

For ARTZ, Arleen was one of the first people the organization could follow through the entirety of its programing. After her death, Shifrin worked with Fred, who has long lived just a few blocks from Fleisher, to find a way to honor her memory. Shifrin says she had often thought of Fleisher as an intriguing partner but Fred’s enthusiasm and financial support were the catalyst for ARTZ @ Fleisher.

On Sunday October 6, from 2:00-3:00 p.m., Fleisher will commemorate one full year of programming with DEAR ARLEEN: Celebrating ARTZ @ Fleisher, a free event where those interested can learn more about how the program enhances the quality of life of people living with dementia and those they love. Shifrin says the partnership is ARTZ Philadelphia’s first exploration in South Philadelphia and that Fred still attends the monthly sessions. He’s been so pleased with the program, she says, that he has established a bequest to ensure the program can continue.

“One of the wonderful things about Fleisher is the variety of art people are able to see. In some cases, we’ve been in the Sanctuary, looking at the altarpiece. In others, we’ve been looking at abstract art,” Schiffrin says. “Our participants really appreciate how much of an adventure it is.”

Each month, somewhere between five and 20 people gather at Fleisher, and Shifrin says the program encourages the participants to take risks. Often, she says, people living with dementia are left feeling marginalized or out of step with other people, but once in the program they are often willing to talk about what they see in a work of art, even if it might feel a little wild.

“One of the things I hear quite a lot – particularly for people coming for their first or second time with a person living with dementia – is ‘Oh, my goodness. I haven’t heard him or her talk like that in ages. We haven’t had something to talk about that isn’t about their illness and now we can.’”

Since ARTZ @ Fleisher has proven so successful, Shifrin is working with Vita Litvak, Fleisher’s manager of adult programs, to explore what expanding the program might look like.

“Our goal is, ultimately, to let people who are interested in making or looking at art know that Fleisher is a place where they’ll be welcomed and they’ll feel comfortable,” Shifrin says “Whether or not Artz is having a program we hope they will just come to Fleisher and feel at home.”

Shifrin and Litvak hope that, in the future, they can engage Fleisher teaching artists that might be interested in welcoming people with dementia into Fleisher’s studios, providing education opportunities so that they both feel comfortable and understand the experience of living with dementia.

“The narrative around dementia is so gloomy, so frankly terrifying, that we want teachers to know that there are other aspects they can feel comfortable about,” Shifrin says. “Quite often, people with dementia are much more creative than they were earlier in their lives. It is subject of study and something I see quite often. So they’re a wonderful population to include in artmaking.”

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