24th June 2013 New York, USA
Creating dementia friendly communities through art engagement
I was at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, better known as MoMA, immersed in a discussion with a dozen others about what the Ghanaian artist’s piece titled “Bleeding Takari II” was made from and what it was meant to represent. I felt like I had an upper hand on the rest of the group in this exercise as I had actually lived in Ghana. I’d worked out straight away it was made from recycled bottle caps and seals – familiar as I am with some of those particular refreshments from my two years in Ghana – but as far as I could tell the artwork was simply a nice pattern with red blotches and streaks that reflected the “bleeding” in the title. Wrong. An older lady in my group piped up that the border on the right-hand side looked like it represented the weaving of a beautiful fabric such as a scarf.
I was dumbfounded. How hadn’t I spotted that? She was completely right. And she’d never even been to Ghana. The border on the right of the art clearly represented kente cloth, a cloth traditionally woven in Ghana. I couldn’t believe I’d missed it – I’d even been wearing my kente scarf the day before!
Becoming so immersed in the discussion around the art I forgot why I was at MoMA instead of at work. I was there to see Meet Me at MoMA in action: a monthly interactive gallery programme run by specially trained educators for individuals living with dementia and their family or professional caregivers. Their programme offers those living with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease an outlet and forum for dialogue.
The Meet Me at MoMA programme is a world-class example of how to create dementia-friendly communities, which is a top priority of the UK government. In 2012 Prime Minister David Cameron launched his Challenge on Dementia: to deliver major improvements in dementia care, dementia research, and to create dementia-friendly communities that understand how to help by 2015.
A report from the UK’s Alzheimer’s Society found that 67% of those living with dementia don’t feel part of their community, and many said they didn’t feel society was geared up to deal with people living with dementia. Programmes like MoMA’s provide intellectual stimulation, as well as social interaction in an accepting environment. Many British institutions, including the Royal Academy of Arts in London, have seen the value in offering programmes for those living with dementia and their carers. With the assistance of MoMA, the Royal Academy of Arts created their own monthly programme, InMind at the RA, available to individuals living with dementia and their family members, friends and supporters.
Dementia has become a global issue. The number of people living with dementia is increasing principally because we are living longer. The World Health Organization estimates over 35 million people currently live with dementia worldwide. The total estimated worldwide cost of dementia is approximately £400 billion a year.
The Prime Minister has shown that the UK is serious about tackling this global issue by announcing that the UK will use its presidency of the G8 to get dementia onto the international agenda. I am hopeful that the summit in London this September will be the start of securing a global approach to tackling it. I hope that, along with addressing improvements in dementia research and care, the summit focuses on improving dementia awareness and creating friendly communities like the one I discovered at Meet Me at MoMA.
Engagement with the arts provides the opportunity for individuals with dementia and their caregivers to learn and discover new things together. It is well-suited to those with memory loss as it doesn’t require the use of short-term memory, and it can unlock memories from the past. The Ghanaian artist’s work unlocked the memory of a market in India with brightly woven scarves for the older lady with dementia. By having her share this memory with the group a whole new dialogue was started.
Before attending Meet Me at MoMA as an observer I had little idea what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect to be have my own memories of Ghana brought back. Nor to stay behind to discuss travel with the older lady with dementia and her caregiver. It was at this point that I realised how useful programmes like this are. I wasn’t the only one staying behind for further discussion. This outing encouraged conversations and social interaction not typical in a normal day for an individual with dementia and their carer. I certainly wasn’t surprised to learn from my group members that they were regulars and would be back at the same time and the same place next month!