Lucy Stewart loves to meander through the Carnegie Museum of Art, stopping to take in something she never noticed before, or just to rest and let her mind wander.
It’s one reason that Stewart, the museum’s associate curator of education, created Mindful Museum, which gives visitors over age 55 access to early morning programming on Wednesdays. The monthly agenda through December includes art paths with meditation stops, drawing, chair yoga and art history classes — offered on site and virtually.
“It’s an idea I’ve had for a while, thinking about senior audiences and creating a series of programs that could coalesce as one overall experience to support the social, cognitive and physical needs of our aging public,” says Stewart. “It ended up being the perfect moment to do so, as we have experienced Covid and a lot of what seniors have experienced with isolation.”
Mindful Museum began in May and at least 100 people have signed up already, about half of whom show up on any given Wednesday. The one-time registration fee is $80 — museum members pay $50 — but scholarships are available for those who can’t afford the cost.
“We do not allow that to deter someone from coming,” Stewart says. “You can drop in and out. We have a variety of experiences, depending on which Wednesday you select. … People are very hungry for content and being able to connect with each other.”
The museum opens at 10 a.m. so the early access provides “beautifully quiet galleries where people can sit and look and enjoy, and not feel rushed,” says Stewart. She devised the walks with meditation stops after noticing that many older museum visitors typically stop to rest and ponder. Meditation recordings the museum offered during Covid remain popular.
“We have to think about what’s there for [older adults],” says Stewart. “In Pittsburgh, we have a higher demographic of older people. In the half-mile radius within walking distance of the museum, there are more than 20,000 people over 55 — that’s Oakland, Squirrel Hill, Shadyside. It’s a large number and it continues to grow.”
Among the 992,084 adults in Allegheny County, 226,124 are seniors. Nationally, the Census Bureau projects that by 2034, the number of Americans age 65 and older (77.0 million) will outnumber those under age 18 (76.5 million).
Stewart cites studies that demonstrate the benefits of art therapy for seniors, such as a report produced for the American Alliance of Museums in 2021 that found museums help immensely to reduce loneliness, risk of dementia and premature death among older Americans. And a study published in 2019 in the British Medical Journal by researchers from the University College London found that older adults who visited just once a year had a 14 percent lower risk of early death (31 percent lower for those who took in exhibitions regularly).
The feedback from Mindful Museum participants is heartwarming, Stewart says.
“We’ve had incredible, positive feedback — more than I could have imagined,” she says. “People are interested in staying active and they want to meet other people. One gentleman whose wife recently passed always says how much she would have loved it, so he’s coming for himself but also for her. Another gentleman brings his wife who was recently diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, because it’s something they can still share.”
In 2008, the Carnegie Museum of Art started In the Moment, tours for visitors with Alzheimer’s and dementia. Museum staff make certain that people can enjoy art no matter what their limitations may be: ramps make the two floors of exhibitions accessible to those with disabilities; guided tours with rich descriptions and hands-on materials assist the visually impaired; and for those with hearing limitations, there are tours in American Sign Language.
As the Mindful Museum participants engage in activities, such as group drawing or chair yoga, “people are remembering each other, which is lovely,” Stewart says. “So it’s supporting all of those different needs.”
Stewart ensured that Mindful Museum had a virtual component for people who can’t visit in person. The museum’s CMOA From Home also has a daily art agenda to encourage art immersion.
“There are seniors at home who cannot or will not, for whatever reasons, leave their home, so I feel that online and on site are equally important,” Stewart says. “Online will always remain a part of what we offer.”
Those who have been showing up on Wednesdays are beginning to tell their friends to come with them, she says.
“I always say, ‘If you have someone who’s on the fence about it, bring them along,” she says. “The museum is a place where I learned to draw, and it’s a place where I’ve spent 27 years [as a curator], where I’ve learned to be me,” she says. “People can embrace that statement and fill it in — hang out, walk, be me, whatever the case may be.
“Museums are places of conversation and dialogue and coming together. We need to foster that and the idea of connecting with someone.”