It's a bit of a surprise when you start to think about it.

Here are some thoughts and reflections as we near the half way mark for the first of four groups - supported by experienced and enthusiastic staff from Derbyshire Community Health Services, on the Riverside Ward in Bakewell. 

Lorraine Turner, Occupational Therapist, has seen the project develop and is hopeful about the effects of art-based activities in Older Adult services. Earlier this year, Lorraine and her colleagues supported a group of patients living with dementia to create a life-size sculpture of a wartime nurse and soldier, decorated with a backdrop of handmade poppies set against a union jack flag. 

Nurse and Soldier - Artwork by people with dementia at an NHS assessment unit in Derbyshire

Lorraine told me how she observed people using this process to reminisce and connect with one another over shared memories and feelings, which were made more accessible by the activity. 

This is one example of the creative interventions the Occupational Therapy Team have encouraged to explore the communing potential of arts based activities – and provides a positive starting point for our research to build on.

The Dementia and Imagination project, led by artists from Nottingham Contemporary, is now underway. 

The sessions begin with the presentation and discussion of art that is current to the gallery’s ‘Somewhat Abstract’ exhibition.  Materials are shown and discussed in terms of their aesthetic qualities, the thoughts and feelings that might be evoked, and the patients’ own preferences and reactions to the art. Dame Barbara Hepworth has been just one of several artists who have inspired session content.  

A sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, used as inspiration for artwork by people with dementia

A sculpture created by Dame Barbara Hepworth, which participants were invited to take inspiration from and create their own sculptures using modelling clay and wire

The artists then demonstrate creative processes and ideas to the participants, who spend the rest of the session engaged in art-making. Some participants have, on occasion, exclaimed that they feel “speechless!” at the quality of their own work.  Clever techniques, which are simple to implement but deliver striking results, have inspired even those who were slightly sceptical in the beginning to join in. 

In a moving twist, the sessions end with the nomination of a participant as curator, who then chooses how to present the day’s creations in a spontaneous and inclusive exhibition on the ward, before discussions about the patients’ work takes place.

The sensitivity and responsiveness of the artists who lead the sessions is key to the success of the intervention. For example, one participant had little experience or interest in the visual arts, having a strong preference for music. This participant has engaged very effectively in intellectual discussions about the art that is presented, but can be reluctant to participate in the practical side of the sessions. However he does enjoy photography and was therefore invited to photograph the creations of his fellow group members. These photographs are then displayed on the whiteboard, giving him an important role in the group that facilitates engagement and communication.

Another participant was initially unsure of her interest in the activities on offer. She later  commented “I often wonder what I can do so I’m not bored at home. Art is something you don’t do very often. It’s a bit of a surprise when you do start thinking about it.” 

Kat Taylor

September 2014