SPARKING connections

On the second Thursday of each month, a small group of men and women gather at the doors of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. The faces change from month to month, but the enthusiasm remains the same. This month, there are six in the group. Three have dementia, in varying degrees of severity, and the other three are their caregivers, there to guide their loved ones through SPARK!, a 90-minute exploration of art meant to trigger imagination and creativity in people with dementia.


The SPARK! program at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum is free to people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, accompanied by their caregivers. Private sessions for long-term care facilities are also available at no charge. 

In the beginning, they’re seated in a room filled with paintings created by Karen Bondarchuk, the master wildlife artist featured in the museum’s 41st annual Birds in Art exhibition. Fittingly, one of Bondarchuk’s works on display through Nov. 27 is an homage to her own mother, who has advanced dementia. “Ergo Sum: A Crow A Day” represents a year of crow drawings, one each day, created by Bondarchuk as a way to mark a time frame her mother could no longer recognize.

At first, the group is silent, listening to museum volunteer Bill Seidl talk about details in the various pieces of art in the room. There are smiles all around. When the group focuses on a sculpture of two mallards, that’s when the magic begins.

All eyes are drawn to Ruth Huff, a smiling, elderly woman who had sat silently through the first part of the program. The mallards trigger a memory for Ruth, who bursts into the conversation with sudden clarity.

“I grew up in Massachusetts, and we had ducks all over the place,” Ruth recalls. “My mother taught us all the names of the ducks and the animals. We just loved to watch them, then we’d feed them, even though we weren’t supposed to.”

Ruth’s son, Roy Probandt, who drives Ruth to the museum from Wisconsin Rapids each month for SPARK!, is mesmerized as Ruth goes on to talk about her own mother, her life growing up, her experiences visiting the ocean. “These are stories I’ve never heard before,” Probandt says, his eyes filled with both happiness and tears.

Ruth’s memory triggers other conversations in the group, before they’re led to the next stop in the tour. There, the group listens to a nursery rhyme tune they all recall from their past, then break out in song themselves, laughing over the nonsensical lyrics.


Roy Probandt with his mother, Ruth Huff, at the Woodson Art Museum: Programs like SPARK! are an antidote to the isolation and loneliness some patients can feel as their memory loss advances. For Roy, the patience and care that go into these programs, “make all the difference… These are the days that I will remember and hang on to for a long time.”

By the time the group heads to the basement, where they will use colorful paper, pens and glue to create their own designs, they are relaxed, even happy. The day was a success.

“This is why we come,” Probandt says. “These smiles. These stories.”

It is a powerful reminder of the amazing, inspiring and affecting influence of art.

The science

As many as 5 million Americans age 65 and older have Alzheimer’s disease, and that’s just one of many dementia disorders, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Alzheimer’s is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death in America that cannot be prevented or cured. The number of people diagnosed with disease is expected to triple by 2050.

But art has proven a powerful tool for treating Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. More than giving patients something beautiful to look at or to keep them busy, hands-on art stimulates the brain. It stirs memories. Studies suggest art can even bring language back into the life of someone who struggles to speak. Dormant memories are triggered; new conversation begins.

Plenty of science backs up that theory. In a groundbreaking study from St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, published in the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences in 2015, researchers focused on how patients with even the most severe forms of Alzheimer’s and dementia recover memories through the act of creating art. What they found was revealing.

One example is Mary Hecht, a Canadian woman with dementia that had deteriorated to the point where she couldn’t name common animals, or tell the time on a traditional clock. But when she got lost in her artwork, she could sketch things from memory, including a stunning portrait of a former research student from the clinic and a drawing of a figurine she had owned as a child. The medical staff reported that when Hecht spoke to them about her artwork, she spoke eloquently with no hesitation.

Scientists say art therapy can awaken patients in cognitive decline. It can inspire a senior with limited speech to use a paintbrush to communicate, and lessen aggressive


The multi-sensory experience is intentional. The storytelling focuses on creativity, which replaces the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. Each program concludes with a hands-on art project that participants and caregivers do together.

behavior. Art offers a chance to connect socially, helping lower the sense of isolation that often accompanies Alzheimer’s.

Rachel Riehle, life enrichment coordinator of the memory unit at Mount View Care Center in Wausau, has been taking residents to monthly SPARK! programs for more than four years. Mount View residents don’t attend the public sessions, but have a presentation of their own. The museum pairs each patient with a trained volunteer, who guides them through the program, asking gentle, yet probing questions. Before long, the patients begin to relate the art they see — paintings, sculptures, beautifully decorated chairs — to their own experiences.

A chair, for example, reminded one participant of her many trips riding on a train. That, in turn, prompted another patient to share a memory of her grandfather, who fixed steam engines. That sharing creates a string of connectedness within each group, Riehle says. “There’s this rich history here that is just waiting to come out. It’s incredible how one little piece of information can bring us all together.”

That connectedness runs not only through the patients, but through all who attend. “It’s not just people with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Riehle says. “There’s something in all of us that can use that spark.”

In the beginning

In 2008, Jane Tygesson, who lives in the Twin Cities area, co-founded the “Discover Your Story” program at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (MIA), a program much like SPARK! at the Woodson.

Two years after Tygesson’s program launched, word started to spread about its success. That’s when Helen Ramon of the Helen Bader Foundation in Milwaukee contacted the MIA asking if they could send staff from several Wisconsin museums to learn more about Discover Your Story and start their own similar programs for people with memory loss.

Five museums piloted the programs, including the Woodson, which held its first SPARK! presentation in 2010. By looking to fund a variety of museums throughout Wisconsin, including those in smaller towns, the Helen Bader Foundation created a unique model for collaboration—the SPARK Alliance of museums and cultural institutions.

Staff from these organizations visited programs at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum for Folk Art, as well as the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. They then helped each other adapt the models of the larger, urban museums to their own cultural centers.

The SPARK Alliance, now ten institutions strong, including the Woodson Art Museum, has answered the question, “How can we provide a museum experience for people living with memory loss?” Each museum has developed a program tailored to its size, operational challenges, and collections. They provide quality touring and hands-on programs for this population wherever they live.

SPARK! at the Woodson also incorporates elements of Time Slips, a program developed by Ann Basting of Milwaukee, who learned in August she will receive what’s commonly referred to as a “genius grant” in recognition of her work. Basting developed an improvisational storytelling method in which older adults with cognitive impairment imagine stories in response to pictures and cues.

Multi-sensory experience

Bill Seidl, a SPARK! volunteer at the Woodson, says the program’s success largely hinges on the work of Lisa Hoffman, the museum’s curator of education. For each SPARK! experience, which changes each month, Hoffman prepares an outline for group leaders to follow, including key information about the art they discuss. She writes up questions for discussion and thoroughly prepares each volunteer, Seidl says. The museum’s curator, Catie Anderson, prepares an educational art activity.

SPARK group 111716

Shereen Siewert/City Pages

SPARK group 111716

This month, the group created colorful owls to continue the bird theme, though each monthly program has a unique project planned.

“These are always fun for the participants, because they enhance the SPARK! experience and encourages discussion and reminiscence,” Seidl says.

There are three main components to each SPARK! experience.

First, a conversation led by a facilitator gently takes participants on a journey through time. Then, there’s creative storytelling, the component that borrows heavily from the Time Slips program. The stories being told focus on creativity, which replaces the pressure to remember with the freedom to imagine. These are often accompanied by a recording of a sound or piece of music. This month, participants listened to bird sounds, touched marbles, passed around an enormous feather, and sang a nursery rhyme. The multi-sensory experience is intentional, Hoffman says, to create the best possible atmosphere for inspiration. “We have found that the music component is especially important,” Hoffman says. “It’s all about stressing the creativity.”

Finally, participants and their caregivers do a hands-on art project. This month, the group created colorful owls to continue the bird theme, though each monthly program has a unique project planned.

Programs like SPARK! have evolved through the years as views on dementia have changed, Hoffman says.

Awareness of the disease has risen, eliminating much of the stigma associated with Alzheimer’s. With greater understanding, there’s increasing emphasis on encouraging acceptance and creativity, rather than isolating or hiding people with the disease, or pressuring them to recover memories.

“From the second you walk in the door, we are setting the tone, showing that this is a supportive, imaginative atmosphere, with our bright volunteer faces,” Hoffman says. “Our participants become like family members. They have the chance to tell their stories, whatever they feel like sharing.”

Other programs have cropped up, too, including the Memory Cafe, a monthly program at the First United Methodist Church. Launched in 2014, the Memory Cafe is a church-sponsored program for people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. It is meant to give people a chance to get together, talk, sing songs, play games and simply connect with one other. Similar groups have cropped up in nearby cities, including Stevens Point and Wisconsin Rapids.

These programs, Hoffman says, are an antidote to isolation and loneliness that some patients can feel as they advance in their disease.

For Roy Probandt, these programs help him cope with the reality of seeing his mother’s memories slip away.

“The patience, the persistence, the care that goes into these programs, whether it is the Memory Cafe or the museum program, make all the difference,” Probandt says. “These are the days that I will remember and hang on to, for a long time to come.”

SPARK! programs

There are two types of SPARK! programs, one for the public and another for long-term care facilities, says Lisa Hoffman, the Woodson Art Museum’s curator of education. Both are free.

Public programs: Held the second Thursday of each month, 10:30 am to noon. The museum asks for preregistration to have adequate volunteers on hand, though the staff strives to be flexible. The nature of Alzheimer’s can mean that some days are unexpectedly good, Hoffman says. “If it’s a good day, we want people to come even if they haven’t registered.”

For long-term care facilities: Interested facilities should contact the Woodson to schedule a private SPARK! tour for residents, three weeks in advance. Patients are paired with a trained volunteer to ensure a one-on-one experience.

Interested volunteers should call the museum to schedule training. Initial training takes 60-90 minutes, then you shadow other volunteers until fully trained. “We are always looking for people to help,” Hoffman says. “It can be very rewarding.”

Call 715-845-7010.

Memory Cafe

Volunteers host the Downtown Memory Cafe 10:30 am-noon the third Thursday of each month for people in the early stages of dementia or who have mild memory loss or cognitive impairment, accompanied by their caregivers, partners, family members or friends. Each month has a new theme, with holiday events planned for Nov. 17 and Dec. 15. Events are held at First United Methodist Church, 903 Third St., Wausau. Register or learn more by calling Rev. Jerry Morris at 715-842-2201 or email [email protected].