Art Connections: helping people with dementia

Contributed by Maryanne Jaques, Arts OutWest. As featured in The Country Web 2017 Annual

An innovative arts program is helping people with dementia to connect and participate at Catholic Healthcare’s Jemalong Residential Village in Forbes NSW.

Jemalong is home for up to 91 residents with a range of care requirements, including specialist care for those living with dementia. The Art Connections program runs in the Coolabah wing, a secure dementia unit, where a gallery or ‘sensory room’ has been created displaying a rotating collection of artworks on loan from Bathurst Regional Art Gallery. In the program, residents view and talk about the artwork, then create their own works in response.

‘Art Connections lets people living with dementia engage in intellectual and sensory stimulation, which promotes storytelling, reminiscence and learning,’ Arts OutWest Arts & Health Coordinator Christine McMillan said.

The program is coordinated by Arts OutWest in partnership with Catholic Healthcare’s Jemalong Residential Village with support from Bathurst Regional Art Gallery and JRV Fundraising Group. It began in 2016 with specialised training from National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Dementia Outreach Program. Staff, volunteers and artists learnt how to talk about artworks with people with dementia, about the importance of asking opened ended questions and allowing time for the participants to answer.

The Art Connections sessions involve four participants per weekly one-hour session over
12 weeks. Residents spend supervised time with staff, artist Ro Burns and volunteers, looking at artworks, then talking about them.

Participants might be asked ‘What can you see?’ or to talk about colour, size, shape, texture, contrast, symmetry, composition; how the work makes them feel; or perhaps the history and context of the artwork. The participants then make their own artworks—an activity just as important as the looking.

Feedback from staff and volunteers has been really positive: ‘I feel the residents were more content in themselves and have built lasting relationships,’ said a staff member. Participants were just as enthused: ‘I felt relaxed and I felt good.’ ‘Art group gives you a chance to see what you can do.’

Staff have noticed positive change in residents during the art sessions and for hours afterwards including a reduction in agitation, greater social interaction and engagement, and functional improvements such as hand strength and dexterity. Strong relationships and trust have been developed between participants, the artist, staff and volunteers. Involvement of family members, including children, in the activities has been appreciated.

Christine says key to the program’s success is providing appropriate training for staff, volunteers and artists in learning how to create a safe space, allowing for that intellectual and sensory stimulation, and how to ask questions and respond.

Another component of the program includes the creation of a sensory garden for residents. Contemporary artists Damien Castadli and Solonge Kershaw are working with residents on ideas and are creating sculptures and textural outdoors artworks for the garden.

Artworks created by residents in ‘Arts Connections’ sessions will be exhibited at the Forbes Hospital and the Forbes Platypus Gallery.

More information
t: 02 6338 4657

Country Web reader giveaway

Grandma Forgets book cover image

Grandma forgets is a special picture book for families touched by dementia.

We still have 3 copies of Grandma Forgets, provided by EK Books, for reader-give away’s. If you would like a copy please send an email to: and simply tell us in 25 words or less your child’s favourite moment with their grandparent. (Make sure to include your full name and postal details and a telephone contact).

About the book….

When your grandmother can’t remember your name it should be sad, but maybe it is just an opportunity to tell her more often how much you love her.

Over the years, the little girl in Grandma Forgets has built up a treasure trove of memories of time spent with Grandma: sausages for Sunday lunch, driving in her sky-blue car to the beach, climbing her apple trees while she baked a delicious apple pie, and her comforting hugs during wild storms. But now, Grandma can’t remember those memories. She makes up new rules for old games and often hides Dad’s keys. Sometimes Dad is sad because he has to hold onto the memories for both him and his mother now, but fortunately his daughter is only too happy to help him make new memories to share.

This is a warm, hopeful story about a family who sometimes needs to remind their grandmother a little more often than they used to about how much they care. She might not remember their names but she will always know how much she is loved.

Recommended for 4–8 years
RRP $24.99
Published August 2017
w: (Free teacher’s notes are also available to download)

About nswrwn

NSW Rural Women’s Network is a government program working in innovative ways to promote leadership and action on rural women’s issues. The RWN team is dedicated to connecting and exchanging information with women and stakeholders in rural, regional and remote communities.
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