Artpacks designed to empower dementia sufferers become national tool

When Yael Filipovic joined the Museum of Contemporary Art five years ago she set about bringing the joys of artmaking to people living with dementia.

"There was a lot happening in the sector around gallery tours and there was a lot of focus on memory recall," she said. "I thought, 'Actually what if we don't put pressure around memory recall but instead create meaningful experiences in the moment and shift the power dynamics with the care partner'."

Anne Latimer, 76, who is living with a form of dementia, paints with her son and carer David Latimer at the MCA.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Small groups of older people and their care partners were invited to respond to artworks and get their "hands dirty".  Some danced and sang while others who had not written in a while took up paintbrushes; all seemed to have experienced a lift in confidence. Carers found it joyful to work side by side with their loved ones.

The results have prompted the MCA to develop an online digital toolkit to take its Art and Dementia program into the wider community.

Believed to be the first of its type in Australia, the resource contains 10 artmaking activities inspired by artworks in the MCA Collection and features step-by-step videos, downloadable instructions, suggested materials and creative tips from the museum's artist-educators.

The toolkit came about after the MCA sought the help of the University of Sydney's Brain and Mind Centre to measure the impact of the sessions and sent artmaking packs home.

Director of the Healthy Brain Ageing Program Prof Sharon Naismith, found "some suggestion of improvement" in visual skills among participants of the pilot program, including an enhanced ability to recognise patterns.

Of the 124 people surveyed, almost all reported improvements in quality of life.

Of the 124 people surveyed, some coming from as far afield as Kiama, Blue Mountains, Newcastle and Bowral,  almost all reported improvements in quality of life and three out of four participants reported improvements to their relationships.

From participants' positive responses and based on previous research, Prof Naismith said creative engagement improved social engagement, mood, well being and quality of life.

"I've no doubt the component linked to wellbeing is socialisation, but also being able to engage in something without anyone judging them, and contemporary art is nice for that," Prof Naismith said. "It doesn't really matter what [creativity] looks like. It negates this inhibition that participants may have."

But, Prof Naismith cautioned, there was not the evidence yet to demonstrate art therapy changed the course of the disease or rewired the brain. Dementia remained incurable.

Filipovic said the MCA's program had a long waiting list and the packs, which are to be sold individually or licensed to organisations, would enable the program to be delivered in community centres and nursing homes.

The toolkit was a vast improvement on mindfulness colouring-in books that did not have the creative variety and structure to suit the interests of participants, she said.

"This is about giving people agency to be creative and making decisions about where their interests lie,"' Filipovic says. "The colouring books are very much rule-focused – you have a circle and you need to fill the colour in the circle."

The toolkit recognised that not enough work had been put into finding activities for people with dementia that were engaging, negated loneliness and improved social networks to "make them feel a part of society still", Prof Naismith said.

To extract most social benefit, Prof Naismith said the toolkit would be best used within a community centre or dementia centre, with trained staff.

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