Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, Phil Whitehouse.

Though dementia impairs the way the brain functions, it does not diminish an individual’s ability to be creative. That’s the principle that has inspired many art galleries around the world and in Canada to create specific programs to allow the inner artist to flourish.

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was one of the first to launch a 90-minute program for those living with mild dementia and their families. Its success sparked others to follow, including the National Gallery of Australia and the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London. Studies looking at these types of sessions showed hands-on art activities helped improvement engagement, strengthen social ties, stimulated attention and concentration, while reducing stress.

Canadian programs with an artful flair

In Hamilton, ON, the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) and the Behavioural Health Program at Hamilton Health Sciences collaborated to help create Artful Moments, an arts-based activity program for persons middle-to-late dementia and their caregivers.

The emphasis is on the participants’ strengths and abilities, instead of the negative effects associated with the condition. To help AGH artist-instructors understand more about dementia, address challenges and to develop art appreciation and hands-on sessions, they attended Gentle Persuasion Approaches in Dementia Care workshops, which use evidence-based curriculum to train staff working with dementia patients across Canada.

Artful Moments inspires participants with early- to mid-stage dementia by connecting them to the works of art displayed in the galleries, whether it’s the tribal masks of the Tanenbaum African Collection or Canadian artist Alex Colville’s iconic Horse and Train painting. Then they head to the studio to create their own masterpieces alongside their partner or caregivers and instructors.

In Victoria, B.C., the Arts & Alzheimer’s program offered through the We Rage We Weep Alzheimer Foundation, also incorporates music into the mix to stimulate memories and engagement. Based on its success, it has also created a downloadable manual that explains how caregivers can incorporate arts projects into the routines of those in their care.

On the east coast, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax features Artful Afternoons for those dealing with memory loss. Held on select Sundays from 1 to 3 pm, it gives participants an opportunity to visit and discuss artworks before embarking on their own DIY art experiences using a range of materials.