The role of art centres in supporting Indigenous communities to age well

Are community art centres the missing link in supporting Australia’s remote Indigenous populations to age well? Paulene Mackell is investigating this question as part of her PhD research with RMIT University and the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI), with financial support provided by the Dementia Australia Research Foundation.

Dementia is experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians at a much higher rate, and with an earlier onset than in the non-Indigenous population. Research indicates that this difference may be accounted for by the vast inequities in the social determinant of health, which contributes to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, stroke, adverse early life events, frailty, falls and brain injury present within these communities.

Prior to undertaking her PhD, Ms Mackell co-authored a review which found art centres in remote communities played a key role in maintaining traditions, cultures and practices unique to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Moreover, it highlighted a gap in our knowledge about how these organisations support older people and, in particular, people with dementia.

NARI is leading a project exploring how art centres in Aboriginal communities support older people, including those with dementia, and whether there is an opportunity to share resources under the policy of Consumer Directed Care. Ms Mackell’s PhD focuses on the methodological aspects of this project.

Ms Mackell said the project is the first of its kind to capture the role art centres play in supporting older community members.

“It will identify innovative ways to share funding and resources, and support people living with dementia and those caring for them to remain connected and engaged in their communities,” Ms Mackell said.

This PhD represents an important step in identifying whether art centres are collaborating with local aged care and health services, and what we can learn from these collaborations to optimise culturally appropriate care.

Older Aboriginal people play very important roles within their communities and many maintain a strong desire to remain living within their community to fulfil an integral part of their cultural identity. This project will go some way towards identifying potential ways to fulfil these desires and to help them avoid leaving their homelands and families to access care for as long as possible.

It is hoped that by engaging art centre staff and artists themselves in research efforts, with their strong connection to the broader community, researchers will be able to develop a dynamic model that can be used by the 90 art centres across remote Australia to support people living with dementia to remain active participants in their communities.

“We will learn a lot from the culture-based approaches that art centres use to support older artists, and how this enables the participation of older people and those with dementia,” Ms Mackell said.

The study is currently being conducted with two art centres – the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Western Australia and Ikuntji Arts in the Northern Territory. The study also includes the Tjanpi Desert Weavers (NPY Women’s Council), an art based social enterprise providing outreach weaving opportunities to women living in 26 remote communities across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. The qualitative study will gather data over a period of approximately 10 months and will invite aged care providers to participate.

Ms Mackell was awarded the Consumer Priority PhD Scholarship by the Dementia Australia Research Foundation in 2017. The scholarship is assessed through a competitive process and considers the research most likely to yield important outcomes for people living with dementia, their carers, families and friends.

“This award has provided me with the opportunity to continue to learn from the innovative ways remote communities respond to the needs of older people. I hope the findings will lead to an increase in culturally appropriate service options in remote Australia for older Aboriginal people,” Ms Mackell said.

This project aligns with the forthcoming NHMRC National Institute for Dementia Research Strategic Roadmap for Indigenous Dementia Research and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Plan of 2013-23 in specifically addressing ways to provide culturally appropriate care to Australia’s first nation peoples.