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Making art accessible through Artzheimers

Written by Alan Wood
on November 29, 2019

When the Artzheimers group visits Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna O Waiwhetū the members are stimulated, not just by the paintings on the wall, but also by the caring presentations they hear from curators and guides.

The Artzheimers name reflects a connection to the arts, and of course that the Gallery is well aware of what impact that diseases of the mind such as Alzheimer’s and dementia can have on senior citizens.

The Artzheimers group, organised in a collaboration between the Gallery and Dementia Canterbury, visit the Gallery to learn about works including those in the Historical Art Collection, which is sponsored by Ryman Healthcare.

When Ryman creates its villages, it includes sensory aids and living area designs to help those with Alzheimer’s and dementia to connect well with the world around them. What the Gallery offers, fits right in with the Ryman ethos of improving the lives of older people.

A recent Artzheimers trip to the Gallery was an eye opener. The group was spellbound by the commentary provided by Gallery staff. Education and Public Programmes team leader Lana Coles and guide Sara Newman gave interpretations of some of the art works to the older citizens. They provided commentary to provoke memories and feelings for the visitors.

Director Blair Jackson was also on hand to talk about the Gallery’s role as a positive catalyst within the community. The Artzheimers programme has been managed by Lana and Dementia Canterbury for about six years, he says.

Lana has been working with Dementia Canterbury to host those with dementia and other brain diseases at the Gallery. The outreach started during the post 2010-2011 earthquake recovery period. The Gallery itself remained closed to visitors for earthquake remediation until December 2015.

Before the reopening the Gallery took some works, and copies of works, out to public spaces including Christchurch libraries to engage with the public. At that point those with dementia, supported by Dementia Canterbury, started viewing the art.

There was an advantage to using copies at this point, Lana says. “The works were mounted on these display boards, that we could pass round, that they could touch. The tactile thing is very important for them.”

Since the Gallery reopening, those visits, to view both historical and contemporary works of art, have flourished. The guides that present to the Artzheimers group receive training on how to best engage.

“This is much better for them (at the Gallery). It’s the real thing.” Lana says. The idea of Artzheimers had been based on the MOMA (New York’s Museum of Modern Art) Alzheimer’s Project.

“I thought this is something, especially when we’re closed, something we can do. Also, we’ve got a policy of accessibility and inclusion to all parts of the community … and it’s been very successful.”

A morning session at the Gallery, like others held over the years, can result in humour, laughter and engagement especially from those within the Artzheimers group. And a version of Turn Turn Turn, a song written by folk singer and social activist Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, heralds the start of the session.

Then Sara Newman talks to the audience on meanings and memories that can be attributed to works in the heritage collection. The group comes alive with answers to her questions and commentary about paintings that reflect gardens, sunflowers and the changing of the seasons. An Evelyn Page painting of Road through Arrowtown is perhaps a reminder of the onset of autumn. Can you see the faint sunlight as it slips through an avenue of trees? Sara asks the group.

The socialising and stimulation of keeping minds active over an hour session with something fresh and new has proven results. “They can stay ‘up’, for about three days afterwards,” Lana says.

“And the sessions are light, they’re fun, I mean it’s not heavy art theory we’re giving them.”

Blair Jackson says the Gallery had benefited from a long-running relationship with Ryman Healthcare, and is grateful for the partnership which was based on the display of historical works and with Ryman now supporting the Artzheimers programme.

Ryman Healthcare Chief Executive Gordon MacLeod said Ryman was delighted to help.

“We care for thousands of New Zealanders with Alzheimer’s and dementia and we know what a big difference a programme like this can make to their lives. Dementia Canterbury and the Christchurch Art Gallery deserve all the support they can get for this programme, and we are privileged to be able to help.’’

About Ryman Healthcare:

Ryman was founded in 1984 and has become one of New Zealand’s largest listed companies. The company owns and operates 45 retirement villages in New Zealand and Australia which are home to more than 13,900 residents and the company employs 6,800 team members.

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