International Conference Gets Creative Edge on Dementia

By McFadden, Susan | Aging Today, September/October 2005 | Go to article overview

International Conference Gets Creative Edge on Dementia

McFadden, Susan, Aging Today

Opportunities for creative expression and experiencing the arts can enhance the lives of people with dementia and those who care for them. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, organizer of the First International Conference on Creative Expression, Communication and Dementia, stated, "What we aimed to achieve for this conference was to establish an interdisciplinary forum where people representing all the visual and performing arts could come together and learn about the role of the arts in dementia care."

More than 150 people representing a wide variety of professions came to Vancouver, British Columbia, in spring 2005 to exchange ideas about creativity and dementia. Art, music and recreation therapists, speech pathologists and psychologists, architects, neuroscientists and sociologists joined dancers, actors, painters, poets and musicians in two days of lively discussion about the transforming power of the arts for people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.


Participants who frequently attend conferences focusing only on their own areas of expertise repeatedly commented on how much they valued the interdisciplinary emphasis of this gathering. Emphasizing the importance of the interdisciplinary exchange at the conference, Gottlieb-Tanaka recalled being at numerous conferences developed for elders with dementia that "did not encourage all the creative-expression disciplines to get together." A participant of the Vancouver conference called it a "fabulous opportunity to gain a better understanding of how to work as a team to meet our residents' needs."

In addition to sitting and listening to formal talks, conference-goers in Vancouver were able to experience the arts firsthand as presenters led them in singing, dancing and drumming. At one point, every person was given a rhythm instrument. Led by a therapeutic recreation specialist and a professional drum group facilitator, participants joyfully created rhythmic patterns of sound.

Several themes emerged from formal presentations and participants' casual interaction. The arts, as well as programs that support and nurture creativity, give a sense of fulfillment, support the development of meaningful relationships and affirm the personhood of elders with dementia. Arts programs of all kinds can open pathways for growth in older people, as well as in those who work with them in long-term care settings, adult day centers and other venues.

Because opportunities for creative expression offer people with dementia ways of communicating feelings, they nourish and promote relationships. For example, one participant described the positive dynamic that developed when a group of people with dementia started to give feedback to one another about their paintings. Another told how a poetry program promoted more conversations among residents in a long-term care facility.

Several speakers emphasized the effects on staff when arts programs were introduced into their facilities. Lori Martin and Vicky Bach of Shalom Village in Hamilton, Ontario, described how staff became more creative in responding to residents' needs. When one resident became upset every evening at five o'clock because she wanted a nickel to ride the bus home to her mother, staff members, who had observed her in a letter-writing program, drew on insights they had gained from that creative activity. They developed instructions for staff to respond to the resident's pleas for a nickel, advising their colleagues to say, "Oh, yes, your mother is the wisest woman in town. People really respect your mother." This satisfied the resident and reduced her anxiety. Martin and Bach said they believe their letter-writing program made facility staff more aware of how to connect with residents' lives to improve care.


Throughout the conference, participants emphasized that the arts should not be viewed merely as having functional purposes; rather, the arts should be embraced because of their intrinsic value and affirmation of the human spirit. …

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