Art and Dementia

‘Memory Roll 1’ by Annie Ho Cooper (2014) –

Dementia Specialist, Julia Burton-Jones, and Artist, Annie Ho Cooper discuss how art and creativity can be used with people with dementia

JBJ and AHC 4B

J: Our common interest is in dementia.  You have a role in KCC but you have also done some art projects with people with dementia.

A: Yes.  In my job in KCC I work with people with dementia and other kinds of mental disorder.  That’s my day job.  I’ve always pursued art alongside my social work career.  It’s been my therapy.   Until I did my MA, my art work has always been separate from my social work.  Suddenly I had a light bulb moment and I felt God was saying ‘don’t separate your art from your social work’.  At first I was a bit resistant because my art was a release from my work but then I decided to use art in a way to tell some stories and raise awareness.  I couldn’t use my clients’ stories or talk to them about my art as that would create a conflict of interest, but I could create ‘dementia-inspired’ work.

There’s also a difference between doing art and doing art with. Working with people with dementia involves a very different approach than developing your own artwork.   The small piece of work I’m going to do with the organisation Bright Shadow* is about developing a creative art workshop for that group of clients and their family carers.

I want people to be able to tell and share stories, whether it creates a short moment of enjoyment or something that helps the carers to sustain the caring.  Workshops can’t be too long either. I’ve collected lots of really old books and I’ve got some Readers Digest from years ago, that will capture a variety of interests from that generation, and then I’m going to get them to create a memory mat where you cut slits in a piece of background paper and weave words into them.  Then at the end of July we have a celebration event where we pull all their works together.

J: So artwork is a bridge to sharing people’s stories, allowing people to reflect.

A: Yes it’s about raising awareness.  I’m also involved in exhibiting my own artwork at an installation at Sun Pier Gallery. I like to use my art to challenge people’s perceptions. People who go and see the art often bring their own stories and may say ‘this piece of art really makes me think about this…’

J: It’s open to its own interpretation.  It’s not black and white. You bring your own response.

A: It’s really interesting how art and music always touches people in surprising ways and they ask questions I haven’t thought about.

J: Also somehow in dementia some creative processes are unlocked that haven’t been previously used.    Somehow people are able to bypass the cognitive reservations that they might have had and just express themselves through music, dance.  Even some people have become artists – it’s remarkable.

A: We’re all so restrained in our creative abilities.

J: ‘Am I doing it right?’

A: When you’ve lost that restraint, there can be some freedom.  You don’t have to be embarrassed that this isn’t right.

J: It’s pure expression.  Straight from the heart.

A: I really want to use my art to raise some issues.  I’m open to how God uses me.  Before my MA, most of my art was through watercolour.  In the last 2 years my work has gone from 2D to 3D.  I use a lot of fabrics.  It’s more sculptural.  Installation work is so wide now.  A 3D piece has more of an opportunity for people to enter into that space and bring their experience.  There’s a lot of research that when memory fails, their sense of connection can be triggered by so many sensual experiences, their smell, their touch.  You have more of a chance to do that through a 3D piece.  You can do it for those with dementia to trigger their experience but also for you and for me.


‘Story 2’ by Annie Ho Cooper (2015) –

J: I like what you said about allowing people to tell their stories through art.  That’s what one of the goals of Anna Chaplains is; it’s allowing people to tell their faith stories as it’s one of the journeys of later life and charting their ‘pilgrimage’.  Art can really do that can’t it?

A: Looking at my journey I have drawn my art and social work more closely together and the missing link is church and faith.  Why is it that some churches don’t know anything about people with dementia and don’t welcome them?  I think it is happening in some places.

J: Have you seen the ‘Pictures to share’ book – ‘Strength for the Journey’?  What’s so lovely about it is it’s so visually pleasing.  There are photographs and artworks with a Christian connotation.  The imagery is designed to help people access their faith.   I can see how it will help people to tell their story. I think it does enrich our own faith as well, being alongside people in that situation.  It’s a mutual thing.  It reminds me about people with learning disabilities in church; they can really help us to understand about our faith.  

A: It’s the same way people talk about children.

J: Some churches get a reputation for being really inclusive.  That message spreads so people go to that church and it sometimes lets other churches off the hook.  It shouldn’t be like that.  If you didn’t have people with learning disabilities, people with dementia and children in church, the church would be much poorer for it.  It’s an opportunity to think about what we do and why we do it.  We don’t want carers to feel ‘I will have to stop my husband or wife coming to church now they can’t be quiet.’

A: Members of the congregations need to be open to people coming in and making us less neat and less tidy.  But in the same way, I don’t want my art only to address people in the church, congregations can develop a response specifically for people with dementia.  So you start a dementia caring group, or a dementia café; I’m not saying they are not good but it’s about creating special groups which take them out of the church rather than integrate them.   I always challenge myself to think about my artwork in the same way, not to work just within the church.    I want to raise a wider issue and it doesn’t matter if someone who looks at my art is a Christian, another faith or non-religious.  Dementia doesn’t cut those lines.  We have a lot more questions than answers.

J: That’s what the Arts do – they don’t give pat answers.  They just allow people to explore.  My background has been about working with music and more recently with facilitating dance with people with dementia. It’s not trying to solve anything or trying to come up with neat answers, it’s just exploration, trying to find something together that isn’t pre-ordained.

A: But are the churches good with that?

J: Because they don’t know where it’s going?

A: When I start a new piece, my husband asks ‘what is it going to look like?’ and I say ‘I don’t know.’  I’m not sure everyone in the church likes that! It is a sweeping generalisation because you have to keep it safe and have to think about other people.  In my art I can take risks.  You learn as you go along and as you make mistakes. I don’t have a pre-determined outcome.

JBJ and AHC 3B

J: But the other thing, and it’s quite a theme with dementia, is ‘co-producing’ things.  The music that I’m involved with is improvised.  This approach isn’t about ‘we’re going to perform for you’ it’s about making a piece of music together that hasn’t been created yet and you might be the person who sets the rhythm by being given a piece or percussion or the baton.  It really is a joint endeavour.   The musicians are using their gifts but they are not playing notes on a piece of music, they are finding it together with people with dementia.  It’s a really powerful thing. 

A: The difficulty with that is it’s so hard to measure those things!  It’s not concrete. it’s not about numbers.

J: Yes the leader of ‘Music For Life’* says that ‘we always end up crying because it’s so powerful – but we can’t really take that as an evaluative – ’.  But to touch people at an emotional level is pretty important isn’t it? – in terms of having a sense of community together and belonging. 

A: We learn about ourselves, our faith, and how we measure mission work in the church is not about numbers.  There are so many parallel lessons to draw.

J: The way Arts have come into dementia support has been a really wonderful thing. 


‘Portrait of Bea’  by Annie Ho Cooper (2015) –

A: There seems to be an explosion of development in the art world for people with dementia, music, art, theatre, visual art, film.  There seems to be some willingness and growing awareness of work with people with dementia within the church and I wonder how those two can join together?  How can we use art for working with people with dementia in the church?  It always seems to separate.   If only we could draw those together then we have so much opportunity.

J: In churches I’ve been involved in there isn’t a lot that is visual.  It’s much more auditory. On the whole it’s not very multi-sensory.  You could make things much more layered.  It would have much more of an impact than just words.

A: And it is for all of us isn’t it?  It’s about challenging all of us to go beyond the sunrise picture that accompany most song lyrics on a projector screen!

*Bright Shadow is a creative social enterprise whose mission is to enable people with dementia and those affected by it to live well and to thrive. We have a vision of a brighter quality of care in which people with dementia’s todays and tomorrows are valued as much as their pasts.

We use creativity and performance to create means and opportunities for people with dementia to express themselves, interact with others and take part in meaningful activities. We believe in celebrating the here and now and enabling people to have fun in the present moment.

As well as direct delivery of workshops, Bright Shadow also achieves their mission by delivering training to care professionals in the use of creative activities, delivering training to churches to help them be dementia inclusive, touring awareness raising events and producing Bright Boxes activity resource kits.