Connection at the heart of art gallery dementia programs

A focus on the present moment

Image: David Matos - Unsplash

Rather than focus on the past and the losses associated with dementia, art and museum programs for people with dementia focus on the present moment experience. Art galleries are places that are typically filled with art, objects and people which capture your attention.  Programs for people with dementia are becoming more popular around Australia, particularly at premier institutions like the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra. The Art and Dementia program at the NGA was launched in 2007 and one of the first of its kind, informed by the “Meet Me at MoMA” program at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Engagement with the arts and art programs for people with dementia can take many forms, from being a visitor in a museum or gallery to being active in the process of art-making. While visiting an art gallery may seem passive, for people in Art and Dementia groups this is an engaging experience as the small groups are led by an experienced art educator who encourages interaction with the art and with other group members. It is here, seated in front of an artwork that thoughts, reflections and often memories of the past are elicited and shared between group members. The benefits of such programs seem self-evident for those who witness the groups, with the group members looking content and happy as they  appear to enjoy the experience of connecting with the art and the people around them. But the benefits of such a program extend beyond these first impressions. In 2019, findings by a team of researchers at the University of Canberra found that group members had lasting benefits, with a reduction in depressive symptoms and markers of the ‘stress’ hormone cortisol. Improvements in this rhythm of cortisol have previously been associated with decreased frailty, agitation, and better cognitive performance. There were 25 participants in the study, all living with a dementia diagnosis. They attended the NGA Art and Dementia program once per week for six weeks in small groups, sitting to view and discuss 3-4 works of art during 90-minute visits. The study was the first to look at changes in cortisol across the day – measured through saliva. Interestingly, approximately half of the 25 participants still recalled aspects of the NGA visits six weeks later. While a larger controlled trial is required to confirm these findings, it is promising that there may be physiological benefits for this population.

Engaging with arts can benefit people of all ages. Late last year, the World Health Organization published a synthesis of over 900 publications, recognising that engaging with the arts plays a role in promoting good health and the management and treatment of chronic diseases across the lifespan. The report outlines how the arts can play a role in addressing rising healthcare needs through dancing, singing, and going to art galleries and museums through its positive effects on mental health and wellbeing. Another 2019 study of 6710 adults aged 50 years and over from the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing, found that self-reported engagement with the arts as little as once or twice per year was associated with a 14% lower risk of mortality compared with those who did not engage. Impressively, those who attended art galleries, museums, exhibitions, concerts, and theatre on a frequent basis had a 31% lower risk of dying. Taken together, these findings represent an important step forward for wide appreciation of the power the arts can have in promoting a healthy life.

While there is evidence of numerous benefits of arts program participation, including social engagement and improved wellbeing, these programs are not always accessible to people with dementia. This is especially true for people living in residential aged care, where activities often take place within the care setting or community-dwelling older people with limited mobility or lack of access to safe transportation. A collaborative approach is needed to maximise the use of existing public spaces and institutions, such as galleries and museums, and to facilitate greater inclusion of older people and people with dementia within the community. Moreover, promoting health and wellbeing among the broader community by creating more opportunities for engagement with the arts will undoubtedly benefit us all.

[Source: Nathan D'Cunha, The University of Canberra research team was supported by the National Gallery of Australia and Ms Adriane Boag, the Dementia Australia Research Foundation, and the Australian Association of Gerontology,]


D’Cunha NM, McKune AJ, Isbel S, Kellet J, Georgousopoulou EN, Naumovski N. Psychophysiological Responses in People Living with Dementia after an Art Gallery Intervention: An Exploratory Study. J Alz Dis. 2019; 72(2): 549-562.

Fancourt D, Steptoe A. The art of life and death: 14-year follow-up analyses of associations between arts engagement and mortality in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. BMJ. 2019; 367:I6377.

Fancourt D, Finn S. What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. 2019; Copenhagen: WHO Regional Office for Europe (Health Evidence Network (HEN) synthesis report 67).