Creativity while Living with Dementia

Making things by hand can significantly boost people's health and happiness. Learning new techniques, experiencing textures and colours and sharing activities with  a social group can all generate a deep sense of satisfaction.

In 2012 Wolverhampton Art Gallery was programmed to have a solo show of Helen Snell’s paper sculptures featuring artworks where Helen had taken inspiration from some of the museum’s collection of Polish paper-cuts. The gallery then decided to also run an outreach art project with participants from: Penn Hospital's Older Adult Mental Health Unit; Stowheath Day Centre and Wolverhampton ReThink and they commissioned artists to work with each of these groups. They planned to show the artworks that were made by members of these community groups in an exhibition which would run alongside Helen Snell’s show. The community exhibition was called The Joy of Making. It ran from Feb-April 2012 and it was quite wonderful!

I was one of the artists employed by Wolverhampton Museums and Art Galleries for this project and I have to say it is undoubtedly one of my most memorable and rewarding experiences. Over the seven weeks at Penn Hospital  I was warmly welcomed into the multi-disciplinary team there and enjoyed the sharing of our skills. 

Each week I ran through what I was planning to do in the session and gave the Occupational Therapists, Amy, Karen, Claire and Sherry a quick demonstration of the proposed activity before they went onto the ward to encourage patients to come to the art room. This weekly pre-session chat was also a chance to review how the participants had felt about the previous week’s session.   
photo credit: Stephen King
photo credit: Stephen King

Each week was different depending on which patients came. No one was forced to come rather they were given the chance to try something new.

A was a great 'joiner-in’; she came to every session but as she had impaired memory she couldn’t actually remember what she had done in the previous weeks. However, it was obvious that her body had some sort of memory; I often say how felting is best learnt by doing and it was obvious that A’s body remembered how to handle the wool fibres.

In the 6th week A rediscovered her ability to plait and got very busy plaiting lengths of the fluffy merino wool tops. This was a perfect opportunity to talk about memories of hairstyles in our childhood.

A’s independence grew noticeably over the weeks. At first she was assisted by one of the nursing staff, then she quickly showed her individuality by deciding on colours and was happy to continue even when there was no one by her side. I was really pleased when she made some design decisions including leaving her flowers with solid petals rather than cutting them and when she made her plait and stitched it in a diagonal across her mat.

 V with some of the felted flowers that she made

photo credit: Stephen King
V had had a serious stroke but despite having one hand in a plastic splint and being reliant on her oxygen tank she was a very enthusiastic participant. She was delighted with the items that she made and quickly revealed her personality and her enthusiasm for colour.

In the second week we made small multi-coloured felted balls and some beads. L not only made some beads but also spent some time arranging them around one of the felted pieces that OT, Karen, had made in the previous week. I was really interested to see how absorbed she got in this activity (she was singing as she did it) and also that she didn’t feel constrained to arrange the beads in an obvious flower pattern.

The first week that we made felted mats with felted fringing was the only week that a lady called J took park. She amazed the OT team by staying engaged in the activity for much longer than she had in previous craft activities. She really enjoyed the sensory experience of working with the soapy water and rubbing the wool fibres. Claire who was assisting her was fantastic at taking time to ensure that she had the chance to choose her own colours.

In the sessions there was often laughter and on more than one occasion dancing too.

It was wonderful to meet up with the group members when they came along to the Opening Event of The Joy of Making at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in February 2012 and there is no doubt in my mind that, 

Not only did they benefit from taking part in the craft activities but they also experienced a huge sense of wellbeing by seeing their own creations shown in one of the country's best regional art galleries.

My training in the field of Dementia includes Drama sessions by Ladder to the Moon at the 2011 Imagine a Difference: Visioning Day for practitioners wanting to explore creativity in relation to Dementia (Praxis Arts and Health network West Midlands).

And also attendance at the 2014 Creative Dementia Conference, Oxford (Creative Dementia Arts Network)

Left: L's arrangement of felted beads Right: A Polish paper-cut design
It was wonderful to see the ladies and gentlemen from Penn Hospital seeing their own work on display in a major regional art gallery
The exhibition was beautifully presented and comments made by the participants were also shown. There is no doubt that creating with your hands has a very therapeutic and beneficial effect on people's wellbeing.