The art of tackling dementia
There’s a tight group huddled around an artwork at the Queensland Art Gallery on a mid-week morning.
Ten or so people sit on small camp chairs, listening intently, as a guide tells them about a painting, using it to spark memories and start a conversation.
Those in the front row all live with dementia. Those at the back care for them.
“Do you remember riding a bike?” volunteer guide Sandra asks the group.
“How did you learn?”
Whip-quick a man in front responds “by falling off”.
The gallery giggles.
This light-hearted group is on an art and dementia tour introduced by the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in 2014.
Debbie Brittain, Education Services Officer with QAGOMA, says “we want the galleries to be a place that’s safe and welcoming for everybody,” adding, there are also tours for vision-impaired and those who are hard-of-hearing.
The free monthly tours are taken by volunteer guides, a small group drawn from the 100-strong team serving the galleries and given special training.
The hour-long gatherings cover four artworks, starting with a short introduction to the piece but soon melting into a conversation directed from the front row.
“The tours don’t focus on learning about the art or the history behind it,” Debbie says. “The artworks are simply a trigger for memories. It gets the neurons firing.”
Debbie says a lot of consideration goes into choosing the right artworks.
“We don’t use works which are too busy, with too many colours, shapes and patterns,” she says.
Subject matter is also important.
“It might be a seascape which can trigger memories of a beach holiday and start a conversation about a shared travel experience,” Debbie says.
On today’s tour, the wag in the front row, Donald, is a first-timer and keeps the group entertained.
He listens intently as volunteer guide Sandra talks about a collection of Chinese-made European porcelain and then asks for a sample to take home.
Sandra gently explains the gallery’s no-free-samples policy, but he’s not deterred.
“So do you have a price? How much would that piece at the end set me back?”
Not all tour participants are as chatty as Donald.
One woman is in a wheelchair and although she watches intently, she says nothing.
But this doesn’t mean she’s absent.
Jan, the second volunteer guiding today’s group, describes another woman who sat mute for an entire tour, until something in the final artwork jolted her to start talking in long, complete sentences.
“You just never know how an artwork might affect people,” Jan says.
Carol has been bringing husband Reg to the monthly tours from the beginning and sees a real difference in his demeanor afterwards.
“He’s lighter when he gets home,” she says. “He can find more words.”
She says she enjoys the tours as much as he does.
“You learn so much more about something when you just sit still in front of it for a long time and talk about it with other people.”
Today’s tour ends with a portrait painted by Scottish artist Allan Ramsay in 1741.
It shows an elegant young man leaning confidently against a dresser with scattered sheet music beside him.
Guide Jan asks the group, “If this artist could paint you, what sort of things would you like him to put in the picture?”
Janice, a retired school teacher, breaks through the confusion clouding her speech to reply, “I want to be painted standing tall and straight. I want to be in control.”