Art paints a picture for dementia patients

An innovative research project, using art to trigger memories and spark conversation, is reinvigorating dementia patients.

Cognitive impairment makes communication difficult for these patients, but social worker Danielle Moss and art curator Monique Silk have discovered that art has an amazing ability to elicit strong feelings in all people. Even for patients who may not know what day it is, art can trigger emotions and memories and lead to surprising conversations.

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Dr Carrie Lethborg and social worker Danielle Moss

With the support of research mentor Dr Carrie Lethborg, Monique and Danielle are using the St Vincent’s art collection to stimulate conversation with patients with cognitive impairment. St Vincent’s is home to the largest art collection at a public hospital in Australia with over 1,000 pieces, providing a unique environment to explore the intersection of health and art.

‘This study came about through a discussion with our Mission team about how we can use the extensive art collection at St Vincent’s as part of patient care,’ Danielle says about her first foray into research, under the mentorship of Carrie.

Five pieces were selected from the St Vincent’s collection and Monique then sat down one on one with each patient and guided them through a viewing of each artwork, with each piece representative of a different art style or theme including landscape, portrait and Aboriginal abstract art.

Conversation around each artwork flowed, but interestingly it was the patient leading the discussion. At the session conclusion, they were invited to choose their favourite artwork and were given a copy to keep.

‘One of the things we measured is engagement through non-verbal and verbal cues,’ Carrie says. ‘We found that art does increase engagement in these patients.

‘The transcripts show that paintings trigger reminiscence. For example there is one painting of the MCG that triggered memories in everyone. Most participants talked about their experiences of going to the MCG or of living in Melbourne.

‘Another picture of a sunny holiday setting prompted one patient to speak about his brother living in Queensland. What’s impressive is that it’s hard to ask these patients where they are, how they are feeling and about their family. But when an image is introduced it triggers memories and all of a sudden you can engage and find out more about them.’

What was surprising for family members to see was the knowledge and willingness with which patients spoke about art.

‘What we found was that aesthetic preference in art is stable over time. Patients with cognitive impairment are very open to talking about what they like or don’t like about a particular artwork,’

Danielle says. ‘The uniqueness of this study is the bringing of art to the bedside of hospitalised patients as a tool for engagement’.

This study is an example of the powerful work that can be achieved when staff with a range of skills are brought together with a research expert to improve patient care. ‘The study needed to involve both clinicians and someone who was very knowledgeable about art. Having an art curator on staff made it possible,’ Carrie says.

Support by the Research Endowment Fund at St Vincent’s and The Andrews Foundation has inspired some big picture ideas about other ways the art collection might be used in patient care.  ‘We have such an amazing art collection here and it gives us a unique opportunity to have a discussion about what else we can do. Now it’s time to get creative.’

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