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how art is helping people with dementia

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“We’ve seen some beautiful works today,” he says at last and then, a little later: “It’s the things you see here and the people you meet.”

Wall evidently revels in the shared experience.

“We learn something every time we come here,” she says. “With the art making you’re pushed sometimes a little bit outside your comfort zone. Which is good and you surprise yourself.”

Dementia programs are now a staple in many galleries around the world. AGNSW’s program has been running for nine years, the Museum of Contemporary Art runs its own sessions and the program at Canberra’s National Gallery of Australia has been running for more than 12 years.

Anecdotal evidence of the programs’ benefits is plentiful but now a new study from the University of Canberra has added to a growing body of empirical evidence.

Researcher Nathan D’Cunha studied the response of 25 participants in the NGA dementia program. He used saliva tests to examine the participants’ levels of cortisol – the main stress hormone.

In people with dementia the normal rhythm of cortisol is erratic during the course of the day affecting their brain function and making them more agitated.

“After the six-week intervention, we found the rhythm of salivary cortisol across the day to be improved,” he said. “We also found the intervention improved some aspects of well-being.

“Six weeks after the study, we asked participants what they remembered of the visits and almost 50 per cent were able to recall specific aspects of the program. Ninety-two per cent of those responded that they very much looked forward to visits to the NGA.”

D’Cunha cautions that his study is only preliminary and he would like to see more, larger follow-up studies using control groups.

Danielle Gullotta runs the AGNSW dementia program. Up to 130 people living with dementia attend sessions at the gallery each month and she has observed the effects firsthand.

“The greatest benefit is when people come for return visits,” she says. “Familiarity with the gallery, familiarity with the facilitators and the the artists is compounded when you come once a month, once every two months.

“You might not remember all the works but you might remember how this place made you feel.

“A lot of these people are not asked what their opinion is. What these programs do is engage you in meaningful conversations and give you in-the-moment pleasure.”

She’s lost count of the number of small moments of pleasure she has observed among participants but one comment in particular has always stayed with her.

“There was a gentleman who came regularly and said to me one day, ‘I love coming to the gallery because when I come here people listen to me’.”

www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/calendar/type/art-and-dementia

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