Growing a community within a community

WAG program designed to help those with Alzheimer’s or dementia

The Winnipeg Art Gallery’s Art to Inspire program uses art therapy to help people living with dementia. (Supplied photo)

Through the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s (WAG) Art to Inspire program, people with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia have an opportunity to create, experience and connect through art.

The idea was brought to the WAG by the University of Manitoba four years ago and inspired by a similar project in Spain.

Each session’s activities involve walking around the gallery, discussing a piece of artwork, having a quick break and then taking time to make a piece of art that relates to the piece they spoke about earlier.

Although the program is for those with Alzheimer’s and dementia, caregivers are also asked to participate.

“Usually, on the first day, the caregivers don’t think that they’re part of the program. They think they are just there for support,” Colleen Leduc, learning and programs coordinator at the WAG, says. “They always get surprised to find out that they’re making art as well. Everyone is there to participate.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was so popular that they had to have two sessions running simultaneously. The session currently taking place is the first to happen since the pandemic started and is running at a lower capacity.

The program has been so successful that spots for the current session are sold out.

“One time, I had a caregiver tell me that her husband never spoke when he was at home or out and about. When he was in the session, he would always share and speak. She was so shocked the first time that she actually got teary-eyed, because she hadn’t heard him speak in a long time,” Leduc says.

What makes the program so special is the community it has created.

“Not only does the art gallery offer this program, but their staff has also learned important communication skills and tips to work with people living with dementia,” Kathy Diehl Cyr, community partnership manager at the Alzheimer Society of Manitoba, says.

“Their lives are stressful enough with appointments and navigating everyday things that I really want to make it work the best we can,” Leduc says.

Participants keep coming back session after session and have expressed that they thoroughly enjoy the ability to try new things.

“I even had a couple of participants that had never done watercolour painting before, and they loved it so much that they went out and bought supplies so they could do them at home,” Leduc says.

Leduc says some of the participants have even come together outside of the sessions to do the activities they loved, like painting, drawing or making something with clay.

The activities where the participants create artwork are specially designed to be replicated at home for those who would like to do more of it.

Although there are only a few sessions left of the current program, the WAG is already planning more programs in the new year. They’re also considering offering multiple sessions simultaneously to allow for more people to benefit from the program.

“They get to be engaged in a safe environment, keeping their hands busy and their minds engaged – these are all things that benefit people living with dementia,” Cyr says.

Published in Volume 76, Number 10 of The Uniter (November 18, 2021)

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