Local woman unlocks powerful memories for seniors and others through unique art enrichment program

‘Unforgettable Art’ event is this Wednesday at the Olympia Senior Center


Maureen Wells hasn’t found a cure for Alzheimer’s.

But she has discovered the key to unlocking powerful memories and improving vitality, engagement, and emotional connection for all adults, including those with the most severe diagnosed memory deficits.

In fact, Wells says museum guides she’s talked to often say their favorite tours are with Alzheimer’s clients – they see and think and say “fascinating” things about art that no one else does.

Wells is a retired psychiatric nurse practitioner who now runs “Unforgettable Art,” an onsite, multisensory, highly interactive fine arts enrichment program for all ages. While her core program is centered on principles of structured memory care for older adults, she’s offered the program to everyone from school-age children to end-of-life clientele and remains amazed by how potently her themed presentations – from her staggering collection of over 1,000 art prints – affect participants young and old.

Despite her background in psychiatric nursing and 20 years of experience in family support for adults with Alzheimer’s, Wells initially discovered the transformative power of art – now the cornerstone of her practice – by serendipity.

Originally from Buffalo, Wells lived in Denver until 2018, where she ran a day program for adults with physical and cognitive limitations. Anticipating severe weather jeopardizing the group’s typical outings, Wells popped into the framing shop where her son worked and borrowed “four or five prints of Van Gogh, and kind of ad-libbed.”

Afterwards, she asked the group for feedback about the activity.

“One of the women who had mid-stage Alzheimer's, who never initiated conversation at all, raised her hand. She said, ‘Thank you. Thank you. Van Gogh is my favorite. I haven't seen him in years and years,’ and started crying tears of joy. And I thought: this is powerful stuff,” recalls Wells.

Several years and generous print shop proprietors later, Wells received a fortuitous magazine in the mail: a free copy of Psychology Now, which she didn’t request.

“To this day, I don’t know why I got it,” she says. “But the front cover says, ‘Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is starting a program to train those who visit our museum to lead tours for Alzheimer's caregivers.’ I'm thinking it sounds pretty similar to what I do. So as it happens, my best friend from childhood was now in Brooklyn, and I’m going to her 60th birthday anyway. So I arranged to meet with the director of the project, a brilliant guy named Amir Parsa. I sat down and showed him some stuff and he goes, ‘Hey, Maureen, we just got a quarter million dollar grant to develop a program, and yours is pretty much what we're doing!’ So he came to Denver.”

Under Parsa’s tutelage and with the grant money, Wells was able to refine her approach and train other museum tour guides for caregivers and their clients. She describes the best advice she got from Parsa, who at the time headed the Alzheimer’s Project at MoMA: “No ‘telling,’ because people with Alzheimer's aren't going to remember what you tell them. What you're going to do is focus on the painting. And on listening. And on interactive dialogue and reminiscing.”

“So I teach those,” says Wells. “Don't tell; ask.” This is as true today, now that she’s relocated to South Puget Sound, as it was when she borrowed those first Van Gogh prints from the frame shop and cautiously asked her adult day group for feedback.

Join Maureen Wells for an Autumn and Thanksgiving-themed one-hour interactive art viewing and moderated group discussion at the Olympia Senior Center on Wednesday, November 15, at 10 a.m. This program is perfect for participants of all ages and is open to the public, according to Wells. 

Maureen can be contacted for group and one-on-one art exhibits and discussions at maureenwells2003@msn.com.


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