Ronna Ostheimer, education and outreach coordinator at the Clark Art Institute, leads a discussion about paintings with a group of people diagnosed with
Ronna Ostheimer, education and outreach coordinator at the Clark Art Institute, leads a discussion about paintings with a group of people diagnosed with dementia. (John Sakata / Berkshire Eagle Staff )

WILLIAMSTOWN -- After a day at the museum, Lydia Littlefield laid her head on her father's shoulder, and she felt like a young girl all over again.

Father and daughter spent several hours touring the prestigious collection from The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. They listened as the tour guide prompted conversation about work from American painters Frederic Remington and Winslow Homer. He smiled; she followed along at his side.

However, this trip in June was nothing like those trips she remembers as a child.

"[My father] had dementia," said the 57-year-old Egremont resident. "He was unsure with his feet. He would use a walking stick."

Littlefield and her father attended a pilot program called "Meet Me at the Clark" for people diagnosed with dementia. The Clark program, scheduled to launch in fall 2014, brings together people with dementia and their caregivers to engage in themed discussion about the museum's artwork.

Littlefield enjoyed the program so much, she attended a second pilot program alone last week with the hope of one day leading a tour group herself.

Three seniors dealing with varying stages of dementia joined her in the October program. They discussed oil paintings done by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, John Singer Sargeant, and Thomas Gainsborough. The conversation focused on "people and places," with conversation about the painter, the painter's subject, and the time period.

Ronna Ostheimer, The Clark's education and outreach coordinator, led a lively and broad-themed discussion on constraints women lived in two centuries ago -- a conversation that unfolded as she talked about the painters and their subjects.

She asked her listeners to give their thoughts about the paintings.

"There's something about this program that unplugged me from being in that [caretaker] mode so I could relax a bit," Littlefield said.

"It allows [those with dementia] to be on a level playing field and share their points of view about the art [in a place] where they are each equally valid," Ostheimer said.

The Clark based the program on one originated at the MOMA in New York City in 2006. An evaluation of the program by New York University in 2011 indicates that the MOMA program spurred intellectual stimulation, promoted positive emotional carryover, and freed those with dementia temporarily of the stigma that comes with the condition.

Littlefield would often go to museums with her father, Thomson Littlefield, a longtime journalist who wrote about art and architecture.

But the trips could be a challenge. Littlefield was always on guard.

Her father, a dapper man with exquisite manners, had a penchant to stop in conversation to find the perfect word. As his dementia had progressed, he would struggle to finish sentences. He'd forget where he was. He needed routine assistance to carry through the day.

Within the Clark's program, she could put herself at ease with other caretakers. They networked. They could enjoy each painting slowly without worrying about interference from others. The program ran on a Monday when the museum was closed, to minimize distraction.

Littlefield and her father looked at Remington's "The Scout," an oil painting of a man on a horse overlooking a village. They discussed the painter's intent.

"It's ambiguous whether he is scouting the village because he's looking for food and shelter or whether he's scouting the village ahead for his own [people] and there is an attack that could happen," Ostheimer said. "It's very ambiguous. It's a wonderful work of art to talk about."

Littlefield said her father didn't talk much, perhaps because of his difficulty in finishing sentences. On the ride home, she resisted the impulse to lay her head on her father's shoulder. Then she re-considered, and asked why not?

"When you can relax a little bit, you can allow the love you have to be in the room. For me when I was in that active caretaker role, I had to keep the emotions at bay," Littlefield said. 

A month after their visit in June, Littlefield's father passed away. When she talks about these simple moments, she can't help but cry.

"It was something about the gift of the day," she said.

To reach John Sakata:
jsakata@berkshireeagle.com, or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata