Through arts, the elderly find healing

Through arts, ARTZ Philadelphia provides healing to the elderly.

Philadelphia leads conversation about art in the galleries during “ARTZ at the Woodmere.” | COURTESY ARTZ Philadelphia
Philadelphia leads conversation about art in the galleries during “ARTZ at the Woodmere.” | COURTESY ARTZ Philadelphia

Sometimes, the straight path is not always the best one—or, at least, Dr. Susan Shifrin believes as much.

Shifrin is the acting director of ARTZ Philadelphia, a local branch of the “I’m Still Here” Foundation that provides art enrichment to individuals with Alzheimer’s disease. Prior to her engagement with ARTZ, Shifrin originally pursued a career as a museum curator.

After hosting a series of ARTZ workshops at the Berman Museum of Art in Collegeville, Shifrin found her focus: developing specialized programs in hopes of improving the quality of life for Alzheimer’s sufferers.

For Rea Tajiri, a professor at the School of Media and Arts, ARTZ Philadelphia made a difference in her life.

“Art proved to be therapeutic for my mother-in-law,” Tajiri said. “When I brought her to art museums, I watched her come to life.”

Because of her personal experiences, Tajiri pursued an interest in Alzheimer’s-specific community programs. When ARTZ Philadelphia launched a $15,000 Indiegogo campaign to continue and expand its resources throughout the Greater Philadelphia area, Tajiri was quick to “join forces” with Shifrin.

“[We] became a resource for each other,” Tajiri said. She aided Shifrin in organizing crowd funding campaigns and hopes to complete an artist’s residency with ARTZ.

According to the campaign’s webpage, ARTZ now services more than 1,000 people annually with art sessions, museum trips and education, compared to the 200 individuals reached when the program first started. Even small donations less than $50 can help provide art supplies for one session of six to eight people. The campaign closes Sept. 30. As of press time, ARTZ has raised $3,996 of its $15,000 goal.

For volunteer Celia Morrison, just one of these sessions can make a difference—for both participants and volunteers.

“Every session has at least one moment when someone’s perspective is so poignant and meaningful that there are smiles and gasps throughout the group,” Morrison said. “I love it when Susan or the main facilitator has to step back and say, ‘I would never have seen that. Thank you.’”

ARTZ plays a significant role in participant’s lives, Tajiri said. Art is not just a luxury, but a way to help stimulate the brain of people with dementia and “bring life to those affected,” Tajiri said.

Shifrin’s ultimate goal is that Philadelphia will “become a dementia friendly community,” as ARTZ continues to mediate between people with dementia and businesses. That way, Shifrin said, “people with dementia and their families can go wherever they want with dignity and enjoyment.”

Shifrin has seen arts’ effect more than once, but an interaction with a couple, an artist and a scientist with dementia, has stayed at the forefront of her mind.

“She said that after his attendance to one of the programs at the Woodmere Museum that she has never seen him come to life like this in a very long time,” Shifrin said. “She said that this program was the one bright light in an otherwise dark journey.”

Erin Blewett can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Inspiring piece. My mom now lives in the fog of Alzheimers but I know that the person is still in there. She loved art and music and these are still part of her life. It is nice to try to help her keep parts of herself even though the disease is taking them away. Thanks for the article and the chance of hope

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.