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SECG Blog: The art of remembering

The art of remembering

By Nathan M D’Cunha
Faculty of Health, University of Canberra

Member of the AAG SECG Communications Working Group

Loss of memory is considered one of the core symptoms of dementia. Yet, people with dementia may retain the ability to recall memories from their past. Through reminiscence or sharing of past memories and life stories, people with dementia may reconnect with their own stories and with others.

During my doctoral research, I was fortunate to be able to witness the use of art to facilitate reminiscence and encourage people with dementia to share memories through their involvement in the National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Dementia program. This program brings people with dementia together in small groups to discuss works of art. My research focussed on groups of older people with dementia, drawn largely from residential aged care, as they participated in the program. As such, my role at the gallery was that of an observer. Throughout the six week intervention, group members were led by a trained art educator as they moved throughout the gallery, stopping to sit on small chairs in front of artworks to engage in conversation while I (mostly) sat quietly in the back of the group watching and listening.

While the level of engagement and depth of discussion appeared to vary between the different themes presented each week, there was one theme that seemed to elicit memories of the past more readily than others: Australian art. First up on this day was the painting “Golden summer” by Arthur Streeton, which evoked memories from group members about their experiences on farms and in the land. This painting depicts a vast landscape of the Australian countryside in 1889, with a shepherd returning home with his sheep in the afternoon on a typical Australian summer day. One group member, a lady in her 80’s, described to the group in detail her experience of living on a farm as a young bride. She recalled fond memories of her family dog and her years as a music teacher and mother while living on the farm. Another group member recognised that it was a scene from Victoria, without any suggestion from the facilitator that this was the case.

For me, one of the most profound displays of connection with past memory occurred during the presentation of Frederick McCubbin’s “Violet and Gold.” This is a busy painting, with dense trees giving way to light shining on a waterhole where your eyes are drawn to a small group of cows, which are seen lapping up water on the waterhole's edge. The imagery seemed to capture one participant who had relatively advanced memory loss as she broke her silence to share childhood memories of rising each morning to milk the cows with her father. Through tears, she thanked the facilitator for showing her the painting and for the memories that it had brought back, which she thought were gone forever.

The Australian art-themed day was brought to a close with the painting “Cigarette Shop” by Charles Blackman. In the painting, there is a girl running from what appears to be a forthcoming storm. This painting elicited memories from most group members, who recalled going to the local corner shop in their youth, some to buy cigarettes, others lollies and everyday items. This also triggered conversation and memories of getting drenched by rain, an experience everyone could relate to.

Other themes and artworks were received differently. One piece, in particular, provided a means for brainstorming. Rather than spur conversations about the wonder of the telephone, the “Lobster telephone” by Salvador Dalí was met with confused faces and the question of ‘why?’. We learned that it is also known as the “Aphrodisiac telephone,” and where the conversations went after that is not appropriate for this blog!

Charles Blackman - The cigarette shop (Running home) 1954

Beyond the reactions to the artworks, what appeared critical was simply providing this group of older people with the opportunity to journey outside the confines of their day to day life. Whether the art brought back the warmth of fond memories or elicited confusion of the unknown was less important than its ability to take them beyond the walls of their everyday lives. The art seemed to serve as a spark for connection and enabled people to reconnect with parts of themselves that had been forgotten and with their external world.

I have fond memories of my visits to the art gallery and time observing these groups. While visiting the gallery may not be an option for many older people, particularly during the present time, the opportunity to connect with memory and with one another remains.

The research was supported by an Australian Association of Gerontology R.M. Gibson Award and the Dementia Australia Research Foundation.

Photo: University of Canberra

September 2020

Mr Nathan D’Cunha is a sessional academic in the Discipline of Nutrition and Dietetics, research assistant, and project officer at the University of Canberra (UC). Nathan has completed Bachelor of Human Nutrition (Honours, Class 1) and is currently working on his PhD at UC. He is a recipient of the UC Herbert Burton Medal for distinguished academic achievement in his graduating class. Nathan also holds a degree from the University of Kansas where he attended with an athletic scholarship. Nathan’s research interests include the relationship between diet and biomarkers of ageing, especially as they pertain to neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. Other research interests include the influence of nutraceuticals and exercise on successful ageing. Nathan also has six years experience working in aged-care and pathology collection.

Nathan is also the current AAG ACT Division Chair. Nathan is one of the 2018 RM Gibson Research Fund Recipients for his project Effects of an art gallery intervention on stress and inflammatory responses in people with dementia.

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