Restoring dignity and joy to people living with dementia



For Sue Brown, ARTZ Philadelphia, a nonprofit founded to provide opportunities for people with dementia to create and talk about art, is really in the business of making magic.

Consider, she says, the man with Alzheimer’s disease lying in his room at a residential care community, wracked by loneliness. Yet at “art time,” he comes downstairs, turns gregarious, becomes a jokester even, as he sits next to three other men while his fingers work with deliberate frenzy on the canvas before him. When their time together is done, he stands at the door and bows to the facilitator with repeated words of thanks.

Or there’s the resident at another center, in another room, who suffer,s with depression. Reluctant to socialize, she allows herself to be coaxed into the activities room. There, she remembers, she can lose herself in a world of watercolors. “Oh,” she says, “that’s the place where I laugh.”

There are other stories: people in assisted living facilities who can’t remember to take their medicine or need help brushing their teeth but put them before a piece of art with someone eager to hear their thoughts and opinions, and vacancy is replaced with vigor. Show the 90-year-old who proclaims she’s not an artist that she can create a fish in three easy steps and when it’s hung in an exhibit, she proudly exclaims, “We don’t do fine art. We do fun art and that’s more creative.”

Or, as Brown likes to say, “It’s process over product. It’s about the joy of creating.”

Yet as a founding member of the ARTZ Philadelphia Board, she also sees a deeper mission in these interactions.

“What I am personally trying to do is to touch that person who’s still inside. Our end goal,” says Brown, “is not to have a beautiful piece of art work. Our end goal is to have a beautiful moment.”

When Susan Shifrin, the executive director of ARTZ Philadelphia, founded the nonprofit in 2013 it was because she had witnessed several of those moments herself as the museum educator at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College. While there, she’d created a program to engage the imagination and creativity of residents at a nearby nursing home.

“Seeing them come to life in the galleries enabled me to envision a new path towards building greater understanding and appreciation for people who are living lives that have been changed by dementia diagnoses but are still full of meaning, full of who they were, are, and can be as long as the rest of us are dedicated to making that possible,” she says.

An art historian and curator who has worked at several museums along the East Coast, Shifrin also has a personal connection to creating opportunities for self-expression for people living with dementia given her mother’s dementia diagnosis almost 20 years ago.

“I was completely unprepared for the sense of helplessness, frustration, anger and isolation as my family tried to come to terms with my mother’s apparent ‘loss of self,’ ” she says. “The narrative of loss, incapacity, disability and ‘a living death’ surrounding a dementia diagnosis is all too prevalent in our world today. We are working towards a new narrative, towards a world that opens its doors wide to people living with dementia, restoring to them their communities, their joy and their dignity.”

ARTZ Philadelphia partners with arts and culture as well as service organizations across the region that share its inclusive goals. Its evidence-based programming is supported by research indicating people living with dementia have an increased tendency toward creative and artistic expression — and get more joy and meaning from their lives when provided with an outlet like the ones offered by ARTZ Philadelphia.

The organization’s many programs include ARTZ @ The Museum, where participants and their care partners gather in locations such as the Woodmere Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum of Art to informally discuss two to three works of art. Other series invite such conversations at residential care communities, where music, poems and everyday objects can also be included in the experience of making art and evoking memories. Sometimes, art is made spontaneously in “pop-ups” at adult day centers, medical offices and care communities. With ARTZ in the Making, for which Brown is the lead facilitator, residents in care communities can participate in hands-on group programs using a mix of media, while Opening Minds through Art pairs the artist one-on-one with a volunteer.

“Having people who don’t get a chance to make many choices choose what color they’re going to use, where they’re going to apply it, how they’re going to apply it, whether they want to use brushes, sponges, glue — there’s something about that. They call the shots, which rarely happens in a home,” says Brown, a former textile designer who has been leading fine arts, crafts and quilting experiences for seniors living with dementia for over 15 years. “Our art work is authentically theirs. It comes directly from the participant.”

This painting by an ARTZ Philadelphia participant is on display in the new exhibit “It Feels Like Freedom.”

That kind of freedom has inspired ARTZ Philadelphia’s newest exhibit, “It Feels Like Freedom…When Creativity Transcends a Diagnosis,” on view now through Jan. 25 at the Philadelphia Foundation Community Arts Gallery. These shows are always accompanied by a public reception as well as a private celebration for the artists and their family and friends.

“To have them walk through a gallery and see their artwork for the first time framed is just unbelievable,” says Brown. “It’s about recognizing the person for who they are.”

Adds Shifrin: “It’s important to me and everyone in our organization that people living with dementia and their care partners be recognized as full human beings, first and foremost, who just happen to be going through the very difficult circumstances of chronic illness.

“It’s always so moving and gratifying to watch someone come to life in our programs. I am inspired every single day…by their imaginative vision, by their wit and enduring humor, by their compassion for others and their willingness – once trust has been built – to risk and to try, always to try.”

The public reception for “It Feels Like Freedom” will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Oct. 5 at the Philadelphia Foundation Community Arts Gallery, 1835 Market St., Suite 2410, Philadelphia. Information: 215-563-6417.

For more on ARTZ Philadelphia, visit