Who’s Afraid of Icy Roads? Not this SPARK! Advocate

By: Jayna Hintz, curator of education on February 3rd, 2011

It’s 7 am on January 27, and I’m off to Superior, Wisconsin, to attend a conference, “Healthy Minds and Healthy Bodies throughout the Second Half of Life.” I’ve rented an SUV with all-wheel drive and feel confident that I’ll arrive in one piece.

I made it as far as Colby and decided maybe I should drink a little less coffee next time I travel. Heading back onto Highway 29, I mutter questions to myself: Who plows the ramps? Are ramps not as important as the highway? Has anyone used the ramp from Colby heading onto Highway 29? It twists and turns sharply. Glaze it with some ice and you have a situation that requires deep-breathing exercises. After one terrifying, anti-lock-brake defying moment, I begin chanting an amended version of the mail carrier motto in my head: “Neither snow nor rain nor ice stays this educator from the swift completion of her appointed rounds.”

I make it to Superior in four hours. My body is still healthy and my mind only a little stressed as I head into the Barker’s Island Convention Center. I’m excited to be here and to take part in “A Hand in the Plan: Shape Wisconsin’s Approach to Alzheimer’s” led by Susan Perlstein, Founder Emeritus, National Center for Creative Aging. My day is looking up as I spot Helen Ramon, Program Officer, Helen Bader Foundation. She greets me warmly and introduces me to Susan Perlstein. I feel honored to meet her; I attended a National Center for Creative Aging Conference in 2009 and was impressed with the research and knowledge she incorporated into creative aging programs.

Susan invites me to sit up front so she can introduce me when she talks about the SPARK! alliance part of her presentation. Susan begins by sharing the Big Picture about aging in America: in 2030 over 70 million people will be over the age of 65. These older Americans are seeking meaningful experiences. Susan informs us that a good program offers social engagement and “mastery,” the opportunity to become proficient at a task or skilI. I ask myself: Does SPARK! offer social engagement and mastery? Yes, SPARK! is all about a social experience – conversation, getting together with other adults, sharing opinions and knowledge. What about mastery? Yes, participants become museum visitors, art critics, art historians, and artists.

Susan informs us that research on creativity and aging shows that those involved in programs similar to SPARK! have better health, fewer doctor visits, less medication, and increased activity and social engagement. As her talk continues I find myself wanting to shout out “Yes, SPARK! does all of it!” In the SPARK! program at the Woodson Art Museum, a team approach is used between the participant and care partner. Interaction with participants is key to the gallery conversations and during those conversations we discover life stories. Creative expression is key too, not only in the conversation but also in the process-based, hands-on art exploration!

Susan now has reached the part of her presentation that addresses Alzheimer’s. I brush my hair back, straighten my shirt, and prepare to stand. What did she just say? Would I come up to the podium and talk about SPARK!? “Neither snow nor rain nor public speaking stays this educator from the swift completion of her appointed rounds.”

During my remarks, I explain that the SPARK! alliance comprises ten museums based in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Each museum offers a program for individuals suffering from memory loss and their care partners. For those that are part of the alliance, grants from the Helen Bader Foundation funded staff training at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each museum models its program after the Meet Me at MOMA Alzheimer’s arts program. A logo has been developed and can be found on the SPARK! alliance museums’ websites and events calendars indicating programs for those with Alzheimer’s. The Alzheimer’s Association placed all the SPARK! alliance programs on its website.

The Woodson Art Museum offers a free monthly program for individuals and their care partners. Artworks on view spark conversation among participants and a creative activity follows the gallery discussion. Discussion begins with a variety of themes – from gardening, canning, farming, shoe shopping, and engagement stories to the writing of poetry. During hands-on art medium exploration some participants protest that they ‘flunked art.” That protest turns to awe upon the discovery that they can create art when it comes from within and that art should not be burdened by someone else’s expectations of a completed project. At the Woodson Art Museum creativity matters. Individual expression matters.

During the last part of the conference we contribute to the statewide effort to identify how Wisconsin can better address the needs of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease.

The discussion is based on the following drawn from the Helen Bader Foundation “A Hand in the Plan” website. http://www.hbf.org/news/ahandintheplan.htm

Why does Wisconsin need a state plan for Alzheimer’s?

Among its benefits, a state plan will inform decision makers about the latest facts on the many aspects of the disease:

providing proven, effective ways to enhance the quality of life of persons living with Alzheimer’s;

demonstrating the need for supporting caregivers and related services when a family member is living at home;

assuring the most current knowledge from scientific research is used in providing services to people and is incorporated into our long-term care system; and

reducing the staggering costs of Alzheimer’s by preventing unnecessary and costly complications and disability.

The input of those facing these issues every day will be a critical part of a successful state-level plan.

This conference is especially timely considering that recently President Obama signed the National Alzheimer’s Project Act (NAPA) into Law. http://www.alz.org/news_and_events_Obama_signs_NAPA.asp

With that, the conference ends and I start my return to Wausau, through sleet, no less. Yes, I’m chanting “Neither snow nor rain nor ice stays this educator from the swift completion of her appointed rounds.”

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