Alzheimer Art: an arts program for people living well with dementia

June 2017

If you happened to visit the Waverley Public Library, Mary J. L. Black Public Library, or the Thunder Bay Art Gallery in the past few months, you may have been struck by a remarkable and powerful display of artwork done by members of the community who are living with dementia.

Last fall, the Alzheimer’s Society of Thunder Bay partnered with Dr. Elaine Wiersma, who is the Director of the Centre for Education and Research on Aging & Health (CERAH) at Lakehead University, to coordinate and implement the research-based art project entitled “(re)Creating the Self: an arts program for people living with dementia.” The placard that hangs with the artwork explains that “the purpose of this research is to explore the experiences, meanings, and impacts of an art program for people living with dementia.”

The program sees participants collaborate on various pieces of artwork that combine a variety of artistic mediums and techniques. Wiersma and the Alzheimer’s Society are running the sessions with the help of dynamic local artist Eleanor Albanese. There have been four four-week sessions of the program so far.

“The first week of each session is about the participants getting to know one another and socializing,” says Leah Clement, Public Education Coordinator at the Alzheimer’s Society. She goes on to say that although the program is geared toward people living with dementia, this fact is not made out to be the only aspect or the primary focus of the program. “The participants often open up about living with dementia themselves over the course of the sessions,” says Leah. “We don’t base the meetings around it, but if the participants want to use the space or the art to express themselves about how dementia impacts their lives, we encourage that.”

Initially, says Leah, some of the participants feel nervous heading into the sessions as they hear the word “art” and think they need to be accomplished artists to be part of the program. Of course, this is not the case and the environment is one of encouragement for everyone, no matter their artistic background. The group has been meeting at one of the workrooms in the Thunder Bay Art Gallery, and the sessions (complete with coffee, tea, and other assorted treats) are always welcoming and relaxed. The feedback has been great, says Leah: “the participants end up loving it.”

The first piece of art that the participants collaborated on as a part of “(re)Creating the Self” was a “paper quilt” in the fall. This striking piece brings together many separate blocks of art on one quilt, each block uniquely stunning and intricate. The paper quilt weaves together all kinds of artistic techniques and materials – threading, fabric, collage, and poetry, among others. Many of the blocks depict some of the feelings and senses attached to the participants’ concepts of “home.”

In the second session, the participants collaborated to create a series of stunning mini-flags that are personal to them in various unique and intimate ways. The flags are truly breathtaking, each one an expression of the participant’s creativity and a glimpse at what is meaningful to him or her. All of the flags incorporate a photograph in some way, some taken years ago and some more recent, some featuring people as the subject, some showing landscapes. Hanging from the flags are beautiful arrangements of various small charms. Like the paper quilt, the flags interweave many different artistic materials and styles.

The most recent artistic piece that participants collaborated on is the “Book of Today”, a large fabric storybook. Each participant created one page that expresses a piece of their personal story. They used watercolour, sewing, and tie dye to create their pages.

“We are planning to display this piece of art through the community to raise awareness and decrease the stigma that is attached to dementia,” says Leah.
The placard displays a quote from one of the participants that the facilitators see as “capturing the essence of the program that has been so positive for those involved.” The quote reads: “It’s like the sun coming up. And anytime you look at it, it’s going to be a good day.”

The program has proven to be incredibly positive, enriching, and engaging for everyone who has taken part in it. The participants come to really enjoy having an artistic outlet where they can creatively express themselves. The most recent session concluded at the end of May, but the Alzheimer’s Society is planning to continue the program. Contact Leah Clement at the Alzheimer’s Society with any questions or to learn more about the arts program.

Cassandra Blair has a Masters of Arts in English Literature and is a regular contributor to Bayview.

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