Capital and country: the Federation years 1900–1914 / Dementia Awareness Month / Panel Discussion

Art and dementia


Panel discussion: Living with Dementia, UQ Art Museum 

This month, we talked to UQ Art Museum’s Curator of Public Programs, Gillian Ridsdale about the Living with Dementia panel discussion she developed and moderated, in association with the UQ Art Museum’s pilot Art and Dementia program.

Q: The composition of the panel for the recent discussion was diverse. What motivated you to bring this particular group of people together?

As the number of people diagnosed with dementia continues to rise globally, one of the aims of the Living with Dementia panel discussion was to increase understanding about the disease, and the particular behaviours that accompany it. While dementia is associated with getting older, the illness is not a normal part of ageing. There are a number of other diseases that can cause dementia, in addition to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form. I also wanted to provide a platform where we could share knowledge about some of the art engagement programs that can help maximise the quality of life for people living with this life-limiting illness. The panellists all contributed valuable insights.

Our first speaker, neuroscientist Professor Lizzie Coulson from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) helped us to understand some of the complexities of dementia, and the links between dementias and the progressive degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. Lizzie and her colleagues in QBI’s Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research are conducting research into the prevention and treatment of dementia. She explained that understanding the mechanisms of neurodegeneration and the triggers of cell decline is paramount to treating the disease. Furthermore, early diagnosis will be imperative to successfully treat dementia, even with currently available drugs – degenerative changes are already well established as much as a decade before cognitive impairment is evident clinically.

Author Christine Bryden, who was diagnosed with early onset dementia over twenty years ago, followed Lizzie’s presentation. Christine is a passionate advocate for the benefits of engaging in creative activities like dance, looking at art and making art. The unusually slow progression of her condition gives Christine a unique insight into the day-to-day lived experience of her dementia journey, which she generously shared with the audience. For Christine, writing about her experiences has also had positive impacts on her quality of life. She describes her most recent book, Before I Forget, as ‘a legacy for people with dementia and those who care for them.’

My colleague, Adriane Boag, Program Coordinator in Learning and Access at the National Gallery of Australia, then spoke about the art and dementia programs she has helped develop since 2007. They have now been delivered to 25 regional and remote art galleries across Australia. Adriane reflected on the quality-of-life benefits of art and dementia programs, based on the positive feedback she has received from people living with dementia who participated in the tours, and also from their carers.

The focus on quality of life for people with dementia becomes even more important as the condition develops and the clinical symptoms of the disease escalate. Our fourth panellist, Associate Professor Christine Brown Wilson from the School of Nursing in UQ’s Faculty of Health and Behavioural Science, spoke about the importance of implementing person-centred models of care for people living with dementia in residential aged care, and for those receiving community care.

At the heart of this approach to dementia care is the recognition that the dementia journey is unique for each individual, and a flexible service delivery model includes helping clients living with dementia to re-connect with hobbies and skills they previously enjoyed, and to discover new activities like art and dementia programs.

Q: What kind of results are being achieved through art and dementia programs – can engaging with art enrich the lives of people living with dementia?

The art and dementia programs that are now offered by leading art museums in Australia and around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, support people living with dementia to engage with visual art to enhance their quality of life. There is now some research that shows purposeful engagement with visual art, and other art-based activities, has a demonstrative impact on health and wellbeing for participants, including improved self-esteem and confidence and, in some cases, less reliance on medication. As one care provider commented recently, ‘we can’t alter the destination, but we can certainly have a high impact on the journey.’ It is this thinking that informed the development of UQ Art Museum’s pilot Art and Dementia program.

The model of small, group-guided, discussion-based tours of three to four artworks in the exhibition Capital and country: the Federation years 1900–1914, on tour from the National Gallery of Australia, provided participants with the opportunity to engage and interact with the art. Along with their carers, they were able to take time to observe the works, make meaningful personal connections, and respond to each other. At the end of the tour, we provided the groups with colour reproductions of the artworks they discussed. We have since learned that this stimulus material helped carers talk with the person living with dementia about their visit to the Art Museum. For some participants, this led them to reminisce about other things and activities they enjoyed in the past.

I collaborated with service delivery advisors at Alzheimer’s Australia and BlueCare to identify suitable clients and, where possible, met with them and their carers prior to the visit. I then worked alongside my colleague Adriane Boag on one of the tours. The success of this pilot program would not have been possible without this collaboration and support. The National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Dementia program provided one model for the development of the UQ Art Museum program. My recent experience at a workshop that educator Laurel Humble ran on MOMA’s Alzheimer’s program was also important.

We are the first university art museum in Australia to offer an Art and Dementia program. This reflects our commitment to providing a safe and supportive environment that encourages diverse ways of looking at art, in discussion and debate with our campus community. Through the pilot Art and Dementia program and the panel discussion, we have made connections with academic colleagues who have expressed interest in supporting future offerings, and involving UQ students in the experience of learning how to communicate with people living with dementia.

  • For further information, contact The National Dementia Helpline, a telephone information and support service available across Australia. The helpline is for people with dementia, their carers, families and friends, as well as people concerned about memory loss.
  • National Dementia Helpline: 1800 100 500; (Qld)
  • To keep up to date with research developments at the Clem Jones Centre for Ageing Dementia Research see

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