Senior Life: MFA offers custom tours for seniors

April 5, 2013
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Thanks to programs offered by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), seniors are getting to experience art in new ways.

The MFA’s Access to Art program lets residents take customized tours of the museum. The tours are tailored for visitors with a wide range of disabilities, including physical, cognitive or emotional disabilities as well as Alzheimer’s disease, dementia or memory loss.

“It’s very exciting to see what a difference being in the museum makes to people,” said Hannah Goodwin, manager of accessibility at the MFA, located at 465 Huntington Ave.

“Through that program, [the MFA] really reaches out to any population that couldn’t otherwise get to the museum,” said Meredith Griffiths, therapeutic program director at Jamaica Plain’s Springhouse retirement home. Springhouse has a partnership with the MFA and brings seniors to the museum for a special tour every month. “The program has just been getting more and more successful.”

Because Springhouse, located at 44 Allandale St., has arranged a recurring tour, the MFA provides the same tour guide every month, allowing a rapport to develop between the residents and the guide.  Tours can be focused on a wing, a gallery, a historical period or a theme like color or music.

“Once we toured the African galleries,” Griffiths said, “[The tour guide] brought out African masks that residents would touch and pass around.”

Goodwin shared an anecdote from a few years ago, before she had to delegate tour-guiding.

While leading a group of visitors with Alzheimer’s disease on a tour focused on color, she showed the group a painting inspired by improvisational music and jazz. A man who had been very quiet on previous tours “just started talking about jazz,” she said, even before she had a chance to explain what inspired the painting.

“It was really the most amazing response to that painting I had witnessed,” she said. “It sparked much more conversation in the group, even among individuals that usually contributed. It was a beautiful moment.”

“I don’t have time to lead tour anymore, which is too bad,” Goodwin added. “This program is a strong reminder of how much people are still themselves and still have a lot of offer to the world, even when they’re dealing with some pretty difficult situations.”

The Access to Art tour guides are trained to work with visitors with limited or no vision, dementia, memory loss or other cognitive disabilities, psychological disabilities, as well as limited mobility.

“Really, we work with quite a wide range. Art is really, truly, for everyone,” Goodwin said. “It makes no sense to me why there would be any limitation to everyone having access to it.”

Accessible tours are available from the MFA any time the museum is open by booking ahead with Goodwin at 617-267-9300.

Tour guide Phyllis Robbins (right) leads a group of seniors through the MFA’s musical instruments gallery. (Courtesy Photo)

Tour guide Phyllis Robbins (right) leads a group of seniors through the MFA’s musical instruments gallery. (Courtesy Photo)

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