Art Therapy: Creating Alongside People with Dementia


“I did something today!” – a statement from a participant in the Art Focus program at Philbrook

Art Museums are intimate spaces for the exhibition and interpretation of art, architecture, and popular culture. Art can also help people recall fond memories and feel accomplished. As institutions within the public domain, art museums aim to meet community needs. Museum educators are using therapeutic techniques to design programs that cater to people with disabilities. The Philbrook Museum of Art, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, recently launched, Art Focus, a program for patients living with Dementia and their caregivers. This transformative art program allows people with Dementia to discuss and create art within an environment where mental health does not impose restrictions.

So what is Dementia? Dementia is a disease that affects daily functions and skills: memory, social, and motivational skills. This is a gradual condition, defined by a spectrum. Currently, there is no cure for Dementia. However, holding senior programs in a museum is a way to allow people living with Dementia to expand their learning capacity and development.

Art Focus is designed as an in-gallery art discussion, followed by an in-studio activity. The structure of Art Focus introduces new learning techniques and encouraging language. This structure allows participants to have a fun, art experience in the moment. Techniques are flexible so that they can be adapted to the needs of the participants. The art discussion utilizes a “See, Think, Wonder” technique. Participants are asked questions such as “What do you see in this painting?” and “What does that make you wonder?” These open ended questions inspire interaction and socialization.

Following the art viewing portion, the participants are invited into the studio space to work with unconventional materials to make something of their own. This is typically a simple task, with step-by-step instructions. The focus of the program is to encourage participation more than creating an end product. This is the main difference between art therapy programs and art education programs. Materials are used in the art making activity to improve motor skills. The materials include large glue sticks, and tempera paint sticks (used similar to a pencil grip).

Language used in museum programming influences how people living with Dementia feel about themselves. The language used in Art Focus is designed to make the participant comfortable and at ease. This means that the language used during art exploration aims to provide an ‘in the moment’ experience and not to draw out memories. Language in Art Focus is empowering and used as a guide to build relationships between people living with Dementia and their caregivers/family members.

Art Focus, an inclusive program, demonstrates the versatility of museums who want to reach a broad range of audiences. The success of the program is seen over a long period of time, through individual observations. Over time, participants were known to have an improved self-esteem, an increase in attention span and participation, a reduction of isolation and an improvement in quality of life and personal relationships.