Art & Wellbeing

When Memory is Like a Dolphin

Recently, in the West Coast village of Ullapool in Scotland’s Western Highlands, an exhibition was staged at An Talla Solais gallery showing work by participants in the village’s Dolphin Arts Project – an initiative set up to support every person in Ullapool with a diagnosis of dementia, as well as their families and carers. There is much that is commendable about the project, for it is not just about the making of art (indeed, it could be said that the making of art is something that runs parallel to the many other benefits that the initiative offers), but art is what lies at its core and is the main focus here. Through a variety of art-based activities, a community of artists and volunteers have come together to provide regular sessions to suit a diverse group of individuals and their families.

Christine McCallum , NHS Dementia Link Worker for Wester Ross (seated, right) and  Anne-Marie Quinn , Project Coordinator (far right). (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Christine McCallum, NHS Dementia Link Worker for Wester Ross (seated, right) and Anne-Marie Quinn, Project Coordinator (far right). (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Weekly drop-in sessions take place on a Thursday afternoon and a trial morning session has recently been added, too. But why? “Dementia affects people differently, and some find their focus or level of fatigue changes as the day progresses,” says a spokesperson for the project. “On the last Friday of each month, we also hold a monthly discussion based in the gallery, as well as monthly art sessions in the village's care homes for those residents who are unable to travel to participate.”

The Dolphin Arts Project is meeting a pressing need for support for people living with dementia in the vicinity, partly by assisting residents in coming together in new ways, and also focussing on how to care in a way that is creative. “We aim to build a community around people living with dementia. It's not about us helping them,” I am told. “Instead a group of people meet for a creative activity, and that activity gives them a chance to engage, and to express themselves when they might otherwise sometimes struggle to remember words or convey their feelings.” It appears that the pure pleasure of ‘making’ alongside friends and new acquaintances builds social connections and encourages friendships at that crucial time when many families may be tempted to retreat further out view; simply because managing dementia in a social setting can often become hugely challenging.

Papier-mâché bowl made in the style of an ‘ancestor pot’  – one of several made as part of a Dolphins group project. The pot contains a poem that one of group members had written about her father. (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Papier-mâché bowl made in the style of an ‘ancestor pot’ – one of several made as part of a Dolphins group project. The pot contains a poem that one of group members had written about her father. (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Although it might be easier to let friendships drift and become accepting of isolation, the Dolphin Arts Project facilitates people remaining ‘visible’ and ‘present’ in the community. Indeed, feedback indicates that those with a diagnosis of dementia are often in a better mood after attending. They are more content, and more able to concentrate and be more socially engaged. Families report benefitting from the group, too, with many carers staying and joining in, thus challenging the often-made assumption that such a project might provide them with much-needed respite opportunities perhaps. To put it another way, “they experience a sense of 'respite without separation' and, knowing their loved ones are at ease, they're also buoyed by the interactions and support.”

Another benefit of the project as it develops, is that volunteers living in the area are learning more about dementia and becoming better equipped to support those who live with it. They are also spreading this learning, albeit rather gently, throughout the wider community, too; to the extent that some participant carers are now vocalising a sense that such projects should become “the new normal.” In seeing the genuine positive benefit of the project, carers themselves are thinking about their futures, as well as their loved ones, and noting that in their own senior years, they want to know that such a project may exist for them, also, if required.

ESTABLISHING THE NEW NORMAL

Following a 2016 visit to the Arora Project (now retitled Cianalas) on the Isle of Lewis, initiated by NHS Dementia Link Worker for Wester Ross, Christine McCallum, to explore how the arts can be responsive to the needs of those with dementia and enable people to engage in ways that create space for playfulness but also honesty and difficulty, the Dolphin Arts Project started as a six-month pilot initiative the following year, first with some pre-pilot sessions funded by the NHS, which had also funded the Lewis reconnoitre, and then with funding from The Gordon and Ena Baxter Foundation and Awards for All.

Word and image collage project  (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Word and image collage project (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Following this, a little funding from Scottish Sea Farms 'Heart of the Community' Awards took it through the winter and into the spring of 2018, when those involved were fortunate enough to receive a year's funding from the Life Changes Trust and Big Lottery Fund Scotland. That money runs out this Spring, however, and while the group has been fundraising to put aside money so that it can continue, and has also received some generous donations, further funds will be required to be able to carry on with this vital work.

Indeed, it is now even more pressing to support those who feel the project has become an important part of their weekly routine and has brought new friendships into their lives at a crucial time. The overall goal is to enable Ullapool to become a “dementia friendly community” by offering training in dementia awareness to people running local businesses and organisations, too. This will include simple tips on how to engage and communicate more effectively with people with dementia, and perhaps some insights into how to make public spaces and local haunts more dementia friendly, also.

With ongoing funding and the continuing support from what are described as, “referrals from Christine McCallum who, by sheer force of personality, physically brings people along despite their insistence that they can't draw or aren't artists,” the Dolphin Arts Project has every chance of succeeding in its objectives, and well into the future. Project Coordinator, Anne-Marie Quinn, I am told, is well-placed in terms of her experience to carry the project forward, for sure. Previously she worked on a creative dementia programme titled In the Moment for Lakeland Arts in Kendal, so her wealth of experience is invaluable.

It is Anne-Marie who has also brought the innovative approach of 'word gathering' to the sessions currently being run. The method is a simple and effective one: she notes down snippets of conversation or responses and reads these back at points throughout the session. “It almost takes the form of poetry, and everyone anticipates and is affirmed by their 'bit', at once feeling attentive and validated by the experience of being heard and included,” says Geraldine Murray, the gallery’s Communications and Marketing Officer; “It’s an effective way of reassuring people, serving to act as a reminder at the end of session about their participation.”

RESEARCH FOR RESULTS

There was a time when such initiatives as Ullapool’s Dolphin Arts Project would have been seen as being well on the periphery of an art gallery’s community outreach activities, and certainly not to be brought within the heart of a regional contemporary art gallery of high standing. Things are rapidly changing, however. At the beginning of 2019 artnet News (the world’s first dedicated 24-hour global art market newswire with reporters and editors in Europe, Asia, and North America) ran a story with the headline: Drawing Helps Us Remember Details Better Than Writing or Taking Photos, a New Study Shows, thus forefronting the topic of dementia for an audience usually in search of up-to the-minute news on developments in contemporary art.

Drawing attention to a paper produced by researchers at the University of Waterloo, the act of drawing, it was said, ‘is perhaps the most effective mnemonic tool.’ The report by Taylor Defoe, artnet’s Galleries Editor, stated that ‘people are more likely to remember information they draw than information they visualise, write, or photograph.’ Preliminary results from the study, reported Taylor, also show that ‘drawing can potentially help patients with dementia and cognitive impairments retain new information,’ highlighting that interest in the topic has increased in recent years. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, initiatives similar to that taking place currently in Ullapool and on the Isle of Lewis are providing an equally commendable experience for those living with dementia, and their carers as well.

Seaside Memories event at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia , with work being created by Artful Afternoon participants with artist Lux Hubrich as facilitator . (Photo:  Art Gallery of Nova Scotia )

Seaside Memories event at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, with work being created by Artful Afternoon participants with artist Lux Hubrich as facilitator . (Photo: Art Gallery of Nova Scotia)

At the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, sessions titled Artful Afternoons provide a relaxed and inspiring environment in a provincial art gallery to view and talk about artworks, a range of materials and art techniques, as well as side projects such as Seaside Memories, inspired by the local Atlantic Canadian folk art from the gallery’s Permanent Collection in which participants have explored their own personal memories and their sense of community. In partnership with the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia, Artful Afternoons first began in 2014 with the program now offering a series of art workshops and interactive gallery tours designed for those living with dementia.

As a spokesperson for the Nova Scotia gallery states, “we are proud to partner with the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia to provide a series of workshops, designed for both those with memory loss and their carers. Participants are offered creative activities, beginning with an interactive gallery tour, followed by a hands-on studio activity led by the artist Bess Forrestall. However, “such a programme would not be possible without the financial support and expertise of our partners”, says the galleries Curator of Education and Public Programs, Dale Sheppard. Lloyd Brown, the Executive Director of the Alzheimer Society of Nova Scotia adds, “In Canada such a programme is unique, but it is making a difference to the lives of those with memory loss.”

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

Christine McCallum (far left), artist Lorna Campbell (fifth from left) and Anne-Marie Quinn, Project Coordinator (second from right). (Photo: courtesy An Talla Solais/Ullapool Visual Arts)

Of course, although Ullapool’s Dolphin Project was named after a comment from a member of the community who lives with dementia – "My memory is like a dolphin, it comes and goes"– there are more than on hundred types of dementia (not just Alzheimer's), and it is a disease that is not just about memory loss. It can affect behaviour, visual perception, and the ability to communicate. While there are an increasing number of programmes of this kind it would seem that in Ullapool, as in Nova Scotia, a growing commitment to such initiatives still requires support to become fully embedded in the community for some time to come, though.

The proof is already there that the work being done is paying great dividends in terms of the well-being of those living with dementia and the carers who support them, but as with all new initiatives that were once considered of peripheral concern, it is the seeking of funding that can occupy a great deal of valuable time behind the scenes. What the future holds may be uncertain, but with greater awareness of the hugely beneficial work being done with initiatives such as the Dolphin Arts Project, a vital community resource could be guaranteed a future for generations to come.


STILL: An Exhibition of Artwork from the first year of the Dolphin Arts Project, An Talla Solais, 8 - 10 February, 2019. For further information about the Dolphin Arts Project, or to enquire about making a donation, contact Anne-Marie (dolphin@antallasolais.org) of Joanna Wright (info@antallasolais.org).

 

FURTHER READING:

Emma Young, The act of drawing something has a massive benefit for memory compared with writing it down. British Psychological Society.

Dementia Action Week 2019: Sign up to get involved in Dementia Action Week (20 - 26 May 2019) uniting people, workplaces, schools and communities to take action and improve the lives of people living with dementia.