Arts-based education program for people with dementia
The idea: Different from art therapy, Kathleen's pilot project showed the benefits of arts-based education for people in moderate to later stages of dementia--improved communication, skills acquisition, social interaction and improved self-esteem.
My name is Kathleen Downie. I am an artist, educator and researcher in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
Recently, as part of my graduate work in adult education I conducted a pilot project and eventual study to see if persons with Alzheimer’s and related dementias would benefit from a dynamic arts-based education program tailored to adapt to their cognitive differences and respect and build upon their retained knowledge and skills.
I recognized that many of the people attending the Alzheimer’s day care program worked very hard to relate to and connect with me. I wondered if they would enjoy participating in a creative, artful process, and further if such an opportunity would assist in their communication and contribute to new learning. Would the experience have meaning for them? Would it bolster their self-esteem, and contribute to a positive social experience for them? I wondered about the benefit of meeting for a class once a week, and beyond this how it might benefit their families and caregivers? Might persons with more advanced dementia learn and benefit in much the same way as those at earlier stages of the disease?
The research study was implemented at Senior People’s Resources in North Toronto (SPRINT, http://www.sprint-homecare.ca/) and engaged ten participants in painting classes that met once a week for one hour over a ten-week period.
As it turned out, all of the participants responded positively to the weekly opportunity to paint and half of this group excelled, working through each phase of the process. The study was a true success because it contributed to improved self-esteem, communication and social interaction. Furthermore, several of the participants demonstrated the acquisition of new skills, and developed a distinctive painting style. These participants also openly shared their work, praised their accomplishments and stated that they felt they had learned something new.
By using an open-ended, personalized approach, (see the link to the guide PDF below) I was able to shape the painting process by employing simple and suitable techniques, resources and sources of inspiration in response to the needs of each individual.
This achievement alone could not have happened had I decided to engage this group in crafting a finished product using prescribed processes and techniques. While crafting is certainly a valuable form of recreation, its prescriptive method and inclination toward predictable outcomes lacks the qualities associated with artful, open-ended creative work, which is unpredictable in nature. As a result, such creative work requires a sensitive and flexible approach that draws upon an awareness of the therapeutic value of creative processes. However, this is not to be confused with art therapy. Rather, it is a teacher/ learner experience that is richly satisfying. The goal is to facilitate opportunities to create art and give voice to expression through the arts.
The program also built mutual trust and reciprocity with and among the participants. They enjoyed sharing and talking about their work with their fellow learners. In turn, these qualities contributed to the expression of positive feelings, improved self-esteem, sense of purpose and communication.
I have also benefited in profound ways, both personally and professionally. The most profound influence upon my life is to have gained such wonderful relationships with elder people who, despite some cognitive loss, accepted and nurtured me through their presence, participation and response to the process. This program was so successful that I am actively pursuing ways to develop, promote and implement arts-based educational programs in a variety of community and care settings for Alzheimer’s learners.
ADDENDUM: December 30, 2012
Kathleen was interviewed by Dr. Brian Goldman on CBC (Canada) for his show White Coat, Black Art on Art and Medicine. Click here for the link to the show's page, then click "Listen" on the page.