Connecting through art

Posted on: 15th January, 2014

Category: Features

Contributor: Mary O'Brien

Mary O’Brien visits St Joseph’s Ward in Bantry General Hospital and sees the enjoyment that some of the older residents living with dementia get out of painting.

There were an estimated 41,740 people in Ireland living with dementia in 2013. By the time we reach 2041, it it expected that 147,015 in this country will have dementia. Even more worrying than this statistic is the fact that many people living with dementia are undiagnosed.

Some of the issues faced by people with dementia are memory problems, communication differences, perceptual differences and poor judgement. A person with dementia does not lose their rhythm, humour, senses or longterm memory. They still need to be touched, loved, appreciated and to feel safe.

“As we become more emotional and less cognitive, it’s the way you talk to us, not what you say that we will remember. We know the feeling, but don’t know the plot. Your smile, your laugh and your touch are what we will connect with. Empathy heals. Just love us as we are.  We’re still in here, in emotion and spirit, if only YOU could find US.” Bryden C. 2005, p.138. Dancing with Dementia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.



For someone with dementia, social interaction is very important, which is why the Arts for Health Partnership Programme recently launched in West Cork plays a vital role in the health and social care environment for older people.

On St Joseph’s Ward in Bantry General Hospital, residents with dementia celebrate their creativity in a weekly session with Activities Co-ordinator Sarah Cairns and Artist Practitioner Sharon Dipity. A recent gathering involved painting from aerial photography. Adrigole man Denis’ impression from a picture of the Fastnet Lighthouse shows great talent with the brush. Some of the other residents prefer using combs and stamps to spread the paint, as it’s a more freeing movement. Stefanie, age 97, is one of the older participants but still gets stuck in. Kathleen from Kilgarriffe, who is completely deaf but still sings beautifully, loves the group painting sessions. Maureen from Coomhola suffers from MS and doesn’t have the use of her hands anymore. Diagnosed with the condition 25 years ago, she started painting and writing using her mouth three years ago. She thought she’d never write her name again. Joe, a taxi driver from Glengarriff, has recently joined the ward on respite. From a family of turf cutters, Joe talked about the brown and black turf and how they used to cut the turf with a ‘Slain’.

Sarah works on St Joseph’s Ward in Bantry Hospital three days a week. She is also part of the training team with Sonas apc, a training and resource organization, centred on non-pharmacological intervention in dementia care.

“People living with dementia are often very misunderstood,” says Sarah. “You should never contradict a person with dementia. If they ask what time the train is due in, your answer should be along the lines of ‘oh, is there a train?’. If someone with dementia is looking for their mother, they are reaching out for care and love. It is very important to make a person with dementia feel safe.”

Sarah goes on to explain how many women with dementia usually feel they should be at home in the afternoon, ie taking care of their family. A man who has worked in the Council all his life might feel anxious every day around the time his breaks used to take place, usually 11am and 3pm.

“Touch is very important for someone with dementia,” says Sarah, “which is why we do doll and dog therapy. There aren’t many opportunity to give love in here, which is why just holding a doll can give a person with dementia such pleasure.”

As for the art activity, the testimonies of participants speak for it — “I love doing it. It passes a piece of the day away” and ‘”it made me feel good, it lifted me,” were some comments.

Arts for Health Partnership Programme is made up of four bodies – West Cork Arts Centre, HSE South, Cork ETB and Cork County Council. The Arts for Health Partnership Programme is a strategic and sustainable response to an ageing population, which enables choice, social inclusion and equitable access to arts for older people in West Cork.

The arts programme maintains a high number of stakeholders over a wide geographically dispersed rural location. Five Community Hospitals; Skibbereen, Schull, Dunmanway, Clonakilty, Castletownbere and five Day Care Centres; Skibbereen, Dunmanway, Clonakilty, Castletownbere, Bantry, and Bantry General Hospital, Care of the Elderly Unit currently avail of the service managed by West Cork Arts Centre.

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