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Creativity and artistry for persons living with dementia.

June 12, 2017

I had the great pleasure to attend the 2017 Dementia & Museums symposium at Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University last week. We heard how art and museum programming benefits both persons living with dementia and their caregivers. We learned about programs implemented in Durham, NC and across the country. Excellent presentations on creativity, program development, and current research on Alzheimer’s disease provided a well-rounded and informative time.


The keynote speaker, Damon McLeese, Executive Director of the Denver Access Gallery, distinguished between the creative spark in each of us, and accomplishment. “I believe everyone is creative, but not everyone has artistry.” When questioned later, he described artistry as “acquired skill or mastery.” I reflected on his definition in relation to this question; is teaching a person living with a dementia different from teaching any other student? Today I examine three elements that are in fact, the same. 


Master gardener or chef, painter or musician, an effective teacher or facilitator gives participants structure and hope. Fostering a successful experience requires providing information, materials and then practice time. Play with confidence then enjoy the results!


Creative exploration invites you to agree, “Ok, I will try this,” and success ends with “Wow, I did this!” and even better “I can do this again.” The skill needed to prod an intermediate practitioner differs from a beginner but the process is the same. Both desire easily understood instruction, and both need tools that match their physical ability. In addition everyone benefits from whale-sized encouragement that this creative work is worth the effort. A person living with dementia may need differing approaches but this trifecta of appropriate instruction, creative encouragement, and a physically accessible environment remains constant.





Notice that I am including the word instruction as a requirement for success. Someone living with dementia may not remember yesterday but they are often capable of following directions within an hour’s class. When instruction encompasses specific steps but leaves space for open-ended interpretation, participants are remarkably successful. I say remarkable only because expectation by staff or family members hovers low. When a person of dementia reveals that her spirit is still strong with creativity, sometimes caregivers are astonished.


Which brings me back to Damon McLeese’s distinction between creativity and mastery. If we link creative endeavors purely with mastery, we won’t explore, take risks, or enjoy process. A person living with dementia slowly loses mastery but he retains creativity often to very near the end of life. Our ability to create connects us to each other, in spite of age, infirmity or cultural affiliation.


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