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Beyond words

The use of arts as a therapeutic tool in dementia care is growing. Darragh O Keeffe reports on the new movement in Australia.

Ten years ago Dr Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka knew next to nothing about dementia. But an unlikely friendship with a woman living at a local nursing home put her on the path to becoming a leading advocate of arts as a therapeutic tool in dementia care.

“This lady had a loving daughter, who, because of her busy job, was looking for someone to spend some quality time with her mother, who had dementia,” explains Gottlieb-Tanaka.

“She could see the clinical care in the nursing home was excellent, but when it came to an opportunity for her mother to express herself creatively, there was nothing.

“If the lady, who was in a wheelchair, didn’t want to take part in a group activity, then she would be left alone in her room.”

A mutual friend suggested Gottlieb-Tanaka, who was running an architecture firm with her husband in Vancouver at the time, spend an hour a week visiting the woman.

“On my first visit, I asked her if she would like to go outside. It was a beautiful day and I thought she would like some fresh air. She said yes and suggested we go out to the gardens. Unfortunately, the gardens were not very accessible for the wheelchair. I struggled with the many steps and on one or two occasions I almost killed us both.

“That experience opened a window to a world of questions. I started to think about what activity I could do with this lady for two hours a week. What would make her happy?”

Gottlieb-Tanaka went to the library of the University of British Columbia, where she had obtained her masters in architecture, and asked the librarian to search for dementia and creativity. The search yielded not a single result.

“I was driving home across the Lions Gate Bridge in Vancouver when it happened. I remember it vividly. My heart started beating fast as I had a moment of realisation. I would go back to university to undertake research and fill the gap in the social care and stimulation of people with dementia,” she says.

Gottlieb-Tanaka embarked on her PhD into creative expression, dementia and the therapeutic environment – encountering more than a few hurdles along the way.

“You have to remember that 10 years ago our understanding and treatment of dementia was very different. When I started my PhD the topic was a major challenge to the current way of thinking. I was talking about creativity and dementia, a concept unheard of. There was simply no research on the subject.”

The creative expression activities program Gottlieb-Tanaka ultimately conceived has revolutionised the use of arts as a therapeutic tool for seniors with dementia.

Gottlieb-Tanaka went on to found the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care in British Columbia, which has organised numerous major conferences on the issue, and disseminates the latest research and best practice to other organisations and practitioners.

The latest chapter of the society has been formed in Australia, by WA-based occupational therapist Hilary Lee. “I had run an intergenerational, community project in Australia, creating a tapestry of life stories, and I presented on that at Dalia’s conference,” Lee explains.

“I was so inspired by the diverse spectrum of health care practitioners at the conference – it’s designed to connect the arts and sciences. I was in awe. I realised Australia was capable and ready to do something similar,” she says.

Lee says the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care (Australia) connects the various artists currently working in aged care.

“Currently they work in isolation. You have music therapists, art therapists, dance and drama therapists – all with their own individual networks. We wanted to connect them, and in that way demonstrate to the community the value of the arts as an integral component of good health care provision.”

Getting the Australian chapter off the ground involved a lot of work and personal investment. Lee started by forming a board, consisting of like-minded people, who began implementing a program of local projects in WA to promote the network and encourage memberships.

“I then began taking it interstate, such as to the Hammond Care conference in Sydney. I also regularly speak about it, and give the chapter a voice, when I travel.”

The society, in conjunction with Aged and Community Services SA & NT, recently held the Arts, Ageing and Creativity conference in Adelaide – the first of its kind in Australasia.

The two-day event attracted an encouraging attendance of professionals, artists, managers and providers.

Both Lee and Gottlieb-Tanaka took part in a day of innovative workshops for participants.

“Just by looking at the feedback forms it’s obvious there was a huge amount of interest and inspiration. It’s very exciting. Our role is to act as a network and facilitate communication for people around Australia.”

The Australian branch of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care can be found at www.cecd-society.org. Hilary Lee can be contacted by emailing [email protected]

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