An elderly lady smiled at me and said ‘I know you. I’ve been here before, I think it was last week‘. The lady is one of the participants in the current ‘Viewing Together’ group for people with dementia and their carers. This type of recall is promising in people with dementia, a condition characterised by memory loss and other symptoms such as difficulty in comprehension, and speech, difficulty in performing previously routine tasks, and changes in personality and mood. Around 800 000 people have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK and numbers are predicted to rise as our ageing population increases. Treatments are limited and although researchers are busy working on it, a cure for dementia may be a long way off. There is increased interest in how to enhance health and well-being in this population and in how to support carers. Cultural and community venues such as galleries are accessible places in which to investigate this.
The ‘Viewing Together’ group meets each week for eight weeks to spend an afternoon in the gallery with Chris Lewis-Jones (Associate Artist), myself and another researcher. The session is split into 2 parts. First we visit the gallery and discuss one or more artworks from the current exhibition. For example last week we focussed on Francis Upritchard’s sculptures. Thanks to the helpful Gallery Assistants, we sit on chairs which are placed around chosen art works and discuss a set of questions specially devised by researchers, educators and artists to use with people with dementia. These do not rely on artistic knowledge or recall and instead get people to focus on what they can see and experience for example ‘what colours can you see?’, ‘what is the piece made of?’, ‘what do you think it is about?’, ‘how does it make you feel?’ We find that this elicits much information, encourages reflection, and stimulates participation and dialogue, even in those who may be confused or novices to the gallery environment. Upritchard’s works ‘Jockey’ and ‘Christopher’ initiated thoughts and discussion about physical and psychical searching, relational positioning, hobbits, starvation, vision and spirituality. Interestingly, although we don’t ask people to reminisce, many do, about childhood memories, places in the Lace Market they visited when of working age, and even General Eisenhower’s visit to the Market Square in 1945.
The second part of the session takes place in the Studio where we focus on a creative activity related to the art works we’ve just seen the gallery. If needed, Smartphone technology captures images of the art works for later contemplation. It is wonderful to see participants’ confidence grow each week, in making art work, using different materials, talking about art and talking to each other, even helping themselves to materials from the store cupboards if they wish. One week, a participant who appeared to be napping whilst we were in the gallery looking at a work by Alfred Kubin, then drew a detailed sketch, inspired by the work we’d been discussing, another lady has revealed a detailed and perceptive artistic vocabulary with accompanying creative skills. At the end of each session one of our participants acts as guest curator and exhibits the resulting artwork at which point we have some critiquing of the work on show. Everyone participates, people with dementia, carers, the artist, the photographer, and the researchers.
I must also mention the hot drinks, biscuits and cakes which are an integral part of the session. And the special objects that participants sometimes bring from home which they tell us about and which are passed around the group. These have included a miniature cabinet complete with vintage threads and buttons inside its drawers and which belonged to a participant’s grandmother and a knitted doll that belonged to a participant’s daughter and that she nursed during the session as if it were a baby.
‘Viewing Together’ is part of a programme of dementia research taking place at the University of Nottingham and Canterbury Christ Church University. I visited Carrie McGee and Laurel Humble who run gallery programmes for people with dementia at MOMA in New York recently. MOMA pioneered the use of galleries as a well-being resource for people with dementia and their carers, see http://www.moma.org/meetme/ I told them all about ‘Viewing Together’ and we hope to work together in future.
For more information about the research contact Dr Victoria Tischler email@example.com