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July 2022

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Art and people living with dementia

Research studies have shown that creative art activities can help boost cognitive function, as well as enhance communication and social connections for people living with dementia.

Even if you’ve never undertaken or practised art in the past, people with dementia and their care partners can benefit greatly from participation in creative art projects. Creating art in a non-judgemental and supportive environment can:
  • provide a sense of accomplishment and purpose
  • provide opportunities for non-verbal expression
  • provide opportunities for social interaction and conversation
  • use motor skills
  • help to relieve stress and anxiety
  • help to improve mood and overall wellbeing.
Creative art projects can be as simple as charcoal or pencil drawing on paper, or extend to sculpture with clay or dough, watercolour painting, paint-by-number projects, and craft such as making cards, collage or even community murals. The subject of your art can vary, from portraiture to still-life to abstract art and more.
 

Improving connection, communication and self-expression

People with dementia who have difficulty communicating and expressing themselves may become increasingly frustrated and withdrawn if they are unable to convey their thoughts, feelings or emotions. Creating visual art can provide an outlet for non-verbal self-expression. It also provides opportunities for social connection as well as positive conversations about art-making practise and the artworks produced.

Artmaking provides a focus for positive and playful experimentation not to mention the pure joy of making shapes and patterns and using colour. Joining a craft group or art-making class is a great way to meet new people. Creating artwork in an encouraging and supportive environment can be relaxing and enjoyable for all involved.
 

Creating purpose and reducing anxiety

Some people with dementia can become frustrated and bored if their symptoms prevent them from engaging in activities that previously gave them a sense of purpose. Creating art is an accessible and achievable activity that can provide stimulation and new purpose.

Most forms of artmaking stimulate imagination, creativity and spatial awareness. This promotes a sense of calm and wellbeing, and helps to reduce anxiety, especially if the artmaking is undertaken on a regular basis.

Where possible, take a non-critical approach and reduce expectations about rules and techniques. Celebrate each step of the artmaking process as well as each artwork produced to build a sense of confidence and efficacy.


Accessibility

Artmaking can be modified to suit individual choice, as well as ability and needs. For example, if dexterity is an issue, you may consider moulding dough or clay, collage or paper mache. While most art activities are easy to set up indoors, some activities, such as sketching and photography, can be enjoyed while you’re out and about. Art supplies are readily available and usually low cost and could even include recycled materials such as torn paper from magazines or gift wrapping.

If, due to cognitive or physical decline, people are unable to create artwork themselves, they can still appreciate art made by others. Dementia Australia have helped to set up dementia-friendly art tours in many city, local and regional art galleries. The tours aim to provide intellectual stimulation in a safe and supportive environment to foster self-expression, meaningful discussion and active engagement, while exploring the range of art works.


Art programs

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) offers an art and dementia program aimed to create new connections and life-enriching experiences through contemporary art people living with dementia and their care partners. Visit the MCA website for more details on their in-house and online programs, as well as the Art and Dementia Online Toolkit.

The National Gallery of Australia provide an Art and Dementia Online Program that they livestream on the fourth Friday of every month at 11am AEST. This social and creative program engages participants with the National Gallery’s collection through discussion and art making.

Hammond Care have an Arts on Prescription program where experienced artists work with small groups to help participants create and learn new skills, while focusing on specific health and wellness needs.

Since 2009, the Art Galley of NSW has offered monthly and on request discussion and developed to include sensory art making  experiences to ensure the collection and exhibitions are accessible for people living with dementia and community support organisations.

Many regional galleries also offer art and dementia programs – for example – the Lismore Regional Gallery and the Maitland Regional Art Gallery. So get in contact with your local gallery today and enquire about their offerings. Or you can explore what is available in your community by searching on the Dementia Australia Dementia Friendly website and enter keyword "art".
 

For more information

Read the following articles on the Forward with Dementia website:

Music and dementia

Research and lived experience show that music helps reduce the often-distressing symptoms of dementia, such as agitation, apathy and anxiety.  When music is personalised, it can enliven, stimulate and enable people to express themselves creatively beyond words. 
 

Music and the brain

There was a significant leap in our understanding around music and the brain in the early nineties with the advent of brain imaging. We’ve learnt that we process music across the whole brain and not just in one region. People with dementia are often still able to engage in music because there are areas of the brain unaffected by the disease that can continue processing music.

We process music in many ways – cognitively, emotionally, physiologically and socially. Multiple regions of the brain fire upon hearing music: muscular, auditory, visual and linguistic. This is why when verbal language skills have declined, it is still possible to sing words or lyrics from a song because a different part of the brain is being used because you’re recalling them through music. 
 

Music to enhance connections

Music is a wonderful tool in making connections, both with the past and with other people if participating in a shared music experience. Studies have found people with dementia are more likely to engage with others when music is played, often in the form of sharing memories and anecdotes.

Engaging in musical activities, particularly with others, helps reduce social isolation and enables us to see a person for who they are, beyond their age and their diagnosis.
 

Tips on engaging with music

There are many ways in which you, or someone you care for, can enjoy music and keep it going as a core part of daily life. How we experience music is as important as the actual music we enjoy. Some examples are:
  • Listening on your own or with others to your favourite songs
  • Singing along to familiar tunes
  • Dancing, swaying or tapping to music
  • Attending a concert or other musical event
  • Watching a musical film or recording of an opera
  • Playing a musical instrument on your own or as part of a group
  • Singing in a choir.
Making a playlist is a great way to ensure the music played is personal and meaningful. Research has shown that we have a ‘memory bump’ of music that we listened to in our mid-teens to late 20s, so this is a good starting point. The resulting list may be music that was popular at the time, however it may also be music that was played in the family home by parents or siblings, or music that was learned through playing an instrument.
 

Things to remember:

  • Where possible, listen to music together with others and share the memories and enjoyment
  • Play music at appropriate times in the day, not as ‘always on’ background noise that can be irritating
  • Make sure the volume is correct for the person/people listening
  • If using headphones, check to ensure they are fitted comfortably and are easy to remove if needed.

Music Programs

  • Hammond Care also have an Arts on Prescription program where experienced artists work with small groups to help participants create and learn new skills, while focusing on specific health and wellness needs.
  • You can participate in an international research study about home-based music and reading for people living with dementia and their carers via Homeside.
  • For programs via aged and health care service providers, including Help at Home providers, visit Music and Memory who certify services across 11 countries to provide a personalised music playlist program.
  • Explore what is available in your community by searching on the Dementia Australia Dementia Friendly website and enter keyword "music".
     

More information

For more information, visit the Music For Dementia UK website for articles on

Prof Brodaty on Four Corners 

Make sure you watch Professor Henry Brodaty, International Lead of Forward with Dementia, in the recent ABC Four Corners Report: Holding on to Hope - The race to solve dementia.
“If we get the whole population to be exercising more, eating more healthily, being more cognitively and socially engaged … that would reap enormous dividends.”

Stay in control of your continence

Continence experts Meredith Gresham and Christine Sender Ivanov*, advise on preventing, understanding and managing incontinence for people living with dementia. 

Continence refers to your ability to control the movements of your bladder and bowels. It can be a difficult topic to discuss, especially early in dementia, yet incontinence is a very common experience for people with and without dementia. The Continence Foundation of Australia estimates that 1 in 4 adult Australians living in the community experience incontinence, but sadly only a small proportion seek help from a health care professional.  
 
The good news is that much can be done to prevent or manage incontinence including incontinence in dementia.
 

Help prevent incontinence

To help prevent incontinence the Continence Foundation of Australia recommends practicing 5 Healthy Habits:
  1. Stay physically active
  2. Eat a diet rich in fibre
  3. Drink enough water, restricting fluid can make incontinence worse!
  4. Exercise your pelvic floor muscles, and 
  5. Practice good toilet habits
You can read more about the 5 healthy habits via the Continence Foundation of Australia.
 

Understand the reasons for incontinence

Understanding the reasons for the incontinence is key. There are many reasons a person with dementia may have incontinence including infection, weak pelvic floor muscles, the side effects of certain medications, other medical conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes or prostate problems in men, or constipation can trigger incontinence. It is important to talk with your doctor or a continence nurse advisor to identify if any of these conditions may be contributing to incontinence so they can recommend treatment that can help.
 

Understand how dementia may affect incontinence

Later in the course of dementia, changes in the brain can mean finding and using the toilet appropriately can be more difficult. Night lights showing the way from bed to toilet and signage on the toilet door or leaving the toilet/bathroom door open can be helpful. A contrasting-coloured toilet seat (eg. a dark grey toilet seat on a white pedestal) gives more visual information for people whose visual perceptual abilities may be affected by dementia.  Building a routine around drinking enough fluids, reducing alcohol and caffeine, and adding a regular toileting schedule can also be useful.
 

Keeping toileting dignified

A University of Sydney study about assisting people with dementia use the toilet found people are sometimes anxious about the indignity of having someone assist them with using the toilet. Continence nurse advisors can recommend appropriate continence aids (eg. pads, special underwear and bed protection) and using new electronic bidets that replace existing toilet seats can be a game changer for a dignified assistance with clean up. Electronic bidets give a warm water wash after opening bowels or urinating. For more information, watch this Hammond Care video on You Tube about using bidets in dementia care.
 

Keep involved in life

There is a National Public Toilet Map that can help you when planning trips and outings. Some people even early in dementia have difficulty in recognising the ‘stick figure’ men’s and women’s toilet signs. Practice recognising and using the wheelchair toilet sign and use these toilets for the disabled which are unisex and have room for another person to assist if required. The use of continence aids together with routinely toileting can improve your confidence in getting out and about.
  

For more information and help:

  • You can get free information and advice from Nurse Continence specialists on the National Continence Helpline, phone 1800 33 00 66 between 8am-8pm Monday- Friday
  • There are government subsidies to help with the cost of incontinence products through the Continence Aids Payment Scheme. People with dementia are eligible for this scheme.

For more information on Forward with Dementia

*Special thanks to Christine Sender Ivanov, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Dementia Care Coordinator and Continence Service Coordinator, War Memorial Hospital, Waverly) for her contribution to this article.

Please help us - your opinions matter!

We want to find out if the website and resources are making a difference for people recently diagnosed with dementia, their families and supporters.

We are looking for people who have been diagnosed with dementia within approximately the last 2 years to participate in an interview about their experiences with the Forward with Dementia website.

  • The interview will take about 30-45 minutes.
  • It can be done online (Zoom) or by phone.
  • It is confidential and will be conducted by an experienced university researcher.
  • Previous use of the Forward with Dementia website is required as this will be the interview focus.

If you are interested to participate or have any questions, please fill out the form on our website: https://forwardwithdementia.au/help-us-improve/

We are also looking for carers to participate in an interview about their experiences with the Forward with Dementia website. The interview will follow the same format as detailed above.

Instead of (or in addition to) an interview, we welcome you to provide feedback via an online surveyhttps://redcap.link/forwardwithdementia.

Health and social care practitioners

Thank you for your continued engagement with Forward with Dementia. To continue this work in improving lives of people with dementia and families, we need your feedback:
  • It will only take 5 minutes to complete a short survey to see if the Forward with Dementia website, resources or webinars may have changed your practice or knowledge about delivering dementia diagnoses or post diagnostic support.
  • Please complete this short survey here: https://redcap.link/fwdpracticesurvey.  
If you have already completed this survey, we thank you for your time.

Need more information?


Read About Us or email forwardwithdementia@unsw.edu.au or leave a message on Tel: (02) 9065 7307.

You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (see links at the bottom of this email).

Forward with Dementia is part of the COGNISANCE project. The project was awarded by the European Union Joint Program on Neurodegenerative Disorders and in Australia is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council.

This project has been approved by the UNSW Human Research Ethics Committee. Project number HC210560 and HC 210308.

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Centre for Healthy Brain Ageing (CHeBA)
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