I have held an interest in dementia since my late mother-in-law developed early onset Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-1970s.
My mother-in-law lived in England where National Health Service institutions owed too much to a former and now thankfully bygone era. My memory of bewildered patients wandering scantily clad and barefoot on cold shiny linoleum, along green and cream corridors, and rows of narrow beds in curtained communal wards where the air was thick with the smell of stale urine and disinfectant, has stayed with me.
The vagaries of what was thought to be best practice care at that time, is still deeply troubling and equally unforgettable. Art has been central to my life and wellbeing ever since my first introduction to the creative wonders of colour began when I was old enough to pick up a pencil.
Even as a small child I found it possible to at least glimpse the wonderment of colours, with each new layer presenting me with a real sense of freedom to explore and immerse myself deeper in the experience. Practicing art in its many expressive forms for nearly fifty years gave me the inspiration to develop the MAC.ART program.
For more than a decade now, my work as the MAC.ART program director and facilitator has given me invaluable experience and the confidence to use creativity and colour and art for the betterment of others, particularly those living in dementia-specific care. As a result, my art practice has developed into something more fulfilling to me than just a personal observation and interpretation, or even a means to create a “source of beauty” in the world. Engagement in art requires time and psychological space, and I find much of my time is spent sitting beside artists who are grappling with differing levels of memory loss.
For these individuals, irrespective of impairment, art brings with it an outlet and a means of expression that sparks enjoyment in life. Art fulfils a very special need within those living with dementia, even if only for that moment, and an eagerness to participate in art would seem to be universal. I have seen and experienced this eagerness in all of the communal artworks I have been involved with.
These artworks are permanent and real, they do exist; they are tangible evidence that those living in care genuinely want an opportunity to participate in art, and to make a mark and leave a legacy, and above all feel a connection with the world. On countless occasions, I have observed the thrill that creative expression brings.
I have experienced the rich insight that art alone gives those who live with dementia in residential aged care and the community.
Communal artworks provide artists living with dementia with a voice. Their art speaks to a story in time and memory.
And, each unique story has been a very great privilege to witness.