The Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney has launched an online toolkit for people living with dementia and their support network.

The Artful: Art and Dementia toolkit is an innovative online resource that offers creative activities led by artists.

Yaël Filipovic

The toolkit includes ten art making activities inspired by works in the MCA Collection, and comes with step-by-step instructions, short instructional videos and questions to help start a conversation about the artwork.

The ten artmaking activities have been specially designed to suit a variety of needs and can be easily integrated into a home setting as well as healthcare setting, such as aged care centres and hospitals.

Yaël Filipovic, Public Engagement Manager for the MCA, says the toolkit is an opportunity for carers to reconnect with their loved ones in a new context.

“There’s no teacher, no facilitator, you’re both starting at the same place, so it’s about removing that dynamic that there’s a carer,” she told Community Care Review.

It’s about removing that carer aspect and doing the activity together, Ms Filipovic said.

“In that experience you’re going to bond, you’re going to go through it together, have a chance to have a laugh, have a conversation and just reconnect with each other.”

Her advice to carers in using this toolkit is to not be put off by the daunting process of making art, which is often scary.

“I think approaching it with an open mind, not putting a lot of pressure on yourself and, instead of thinking about final products, just think “I’m going to have some fun today and experiment something and we’ll just see what happens”.”

Backed by research

The creation of the toolkit was informed by research conducted by the MCA, the Brain and Mind Centre at the University of Sydney and Dementia Australia.

The pilot research project took place over three years, from 2016 to 2018.

As part of the project, a 10-week art and dementia program was undertaken at the MCA to examine the impact of regular art activity on the wellbeing and markers of neuroplasticity of people living with dementia.

At the conclusion of the program, the Museum adapted the program into a six-week program called Artful: Art and Dementia program.

During the program, participants are supported by trained artist educators to engage with and respond to contemporary art in the galleries.The online toolkit has also been based on this program.

Incorporating carers

Ms Filipovic says the program is unique in the way it treats carers. In many art and dementia programs, the the aim is to offer respite for carers. But the MCA model incorporates them into the program.

“What we’ve seen from that is the relationship between the care partner and the person living with dementia really flourishes through that experience of them being two people experiencing something together on equal footing,” she said at the launch of the toolkit.

The program, which began in 2015, runs weekly with 2-hour visits to the MCA, with small groups of eight supported by trained artist educators.

Collaboration is key

Alice Blandeau-Thomas, Art and Dementia Program Coordinator, said one of the keys to the program is collaboration.

“Everybody gets involved, including the participants, the artist educators, the care partners and myself. So there’s no distinction between who does and doesn’t have dementia,” she said at the launch of the toolkit.

Although an artmaking session is included in the program, it is not called arts and crafts. Instead, the artmaking materials are carefully chosen so the artworks created can be validated as art.

“This is why it’s so important for us to celebrate at the end of six weeks with an exhibition for the participants to see their works up on a wall within a gallery context, and to share this with their invited guests,” Ms Blandeau-Thomas said.

Key findings from the research:

  • 97.5 per cent of respondents found the Artful program helped improve quality of life
  • 71 per cent of the respondents found the program helped improve relationships
  • The program fostered new connections between the participant and their care partner
  • It underscored the importance of play on mental wellbeing
  • Experimenting with unconventional materials and art making processes is empowering for people living with dementia

For more information on the Artful program visit the MCA’s website.

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