When she sits together with dementia patients, Tiffany Paige shows them small reprints of well-known art for example, Vincent van Gogh's "Starry Night," with its curlicues of bright stars swirling over a valley where a tiny church is tucked between the hills.
"One woman is so drawn to that chapel," said Paige. "She's from a big Italian Catholic family, and this is what she sees. Another woman, the swirls in the sky make her giggle. She runs her finger over the swirls and giggles.
"Something's happening in there."
That's the point of Artz: Artists for Alzheimer's, a nonprofit that organizes museum tours for Alzheimer's patients to reach into the thick shroud of dementia and spark their imaginations and perhaps their memories.
Paige, a 42-year-old artist and former costume designer who now works with the elderly, is setting up a Sacramento branch of the nonprofit, which is based in Boston. She'd like the group's museum tours to begin early this year.
"We haven't done anything like this before for people with Alzheimer's," said Kathleen Richards, spokeswoman for the Crocker Art Museum, which is developing a pilot program of tours with Paige.
"But this idea is just great."
Research has long shown that art therapy actually making art, as well as visiting museums to see established artists' work can help dementia patients improve their concentration and communication skills and relieve stress.
"Participants don't have to recall anything," said Paige. "There's no right or wrong. Anything they experience is appropriate. They're heard, and that helps re-establish their self-esteem. They're out in the community, not hidden, and other people see them.
"They have a way of seeing things in art that we don't see. They're able to touch a sense of meaning they might never have (had they been) stuck at home or in a facility."
The idea behind the pilot program is simple enough: Recruiting initially from care homes in the Sacramento region, Paige plans to take small tour groups up to eight dementia patients per tour, plus their family members or caregivers through the Crocker as well as the California Museum one day each month.
The free tours will last approximately an hour and include the viewing of no more than five artworks or installations, she said.
"We're 100 percent supportive and would love to be part of this," said Brenna Hamilton, California Museum spokeswoman. "It's a matter of the organization having the funding in place for the program for it to start."
Through a project Paige calls Artz Delivers, she plans to take artwork into dementia facilities for people with limited mobility, as well.
"There's something about giving people with dementia the chance to keep their dignity intact," she said. "A lot has to do with my grandfather and watching this man who was brilliant and funny fade away from Alzheimer's disease.
"I'm seeing how art can help these people wake up. They're still in there."
For more information on the program, email firstname.lastname@example.org.