Dementia and art – it’s a combination you don’t hear about too often. Yet dementia care specialist Frans Hoogeveen thinks it’s high time we start paying more attention to this subject. Hoogeveen is convinced that dementia is not always the horrible disease we all make it out to be. In fact, it is often still possible to provide a good quality of life. But how does that go? And which role can art play in that process? Let’s go and find out the answers!
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Frans, what is your fascination with dementia?
For me, it’s a combination of old age and decay – two themes that fascinate me to no end. Sometimes I tell my students – in jest, of course: “I don’t find you interesting at all. Twenty-year olds have been through so little in life!” They invariably laugh at me, but I do mean it.
I read that you can often maintain a good quaility of life if you suffer from dementia. But how?
If I ask you what makes you happy, I’m sure you tell me about having a sense of purpose in life and about social relations. Knowing that you have people around you who love you – that is what we all like best, whether we have dementia or not. People with dementia have the same needs as we do. I once met a woman with dementia who used to work as a caregiver when she was younger. She always used to make coffee at her local community center. Because we knew that made her happy, we taught her to make coffee again, but this time around it was for her fellow patients at her nursing home. She felt great once she got the hang of it!
What about dementia and art? It’s a subject you read a lot about these days.
Art is like music, it is often associated with emotional memories. Think about music from when you were around 20 years old and you started your first relationship. You never forget the songs you played at the time, which is exactly why I started Radio Remember, an online radio station for people with dementia. Memories that involve emotions are forgotten less often. They also help you reach other memories.
But doesn’t art often go one step further than music?
As Dutch writer Gerard Reve used to say, “Art is a stylized human action – or its result – that brings about an emotion.” In other words, it’s about styling and emotion. A mother crying over the cod of her dead baby is not art. But if you stylize it into a song, then it’s art. Emotion play an equally important role in art. It has to stir up feelings. People with dementia don’t necessarily lose to capability to be touched by something. The emotional spectrum can stay intact for quite some time. So can the sense of aesthetics, by the way. You can definitely still enjoy art if you have dementia.
What are the things you have to pay attention to if you want to select art for someone with dementia?
It’s too easy to just look for art that brings back old memories. Of course you can appeal to what someone used to like when they were younger. But I also think it can be interesting to take things a bit further. Take, for instance, a painting of a positive social situation, like that of a mother and child. It can be very pleasing to discuss it with someone who has dementia.
And what about dementia and interior design?
Many people have fixed habits that you have to bear in mind. These habits are particularly important when someone has to move to a nursing home because they suffer from dementia and can no longer take care of themselves. Did you know there is a moving company that specializes in situations like these? First, the mover drops by for a visit to determine which items matter the most. After all, you can’t take everything with you. He then takes photos, not just of the layout of the room but also of the contents of each drawer. This allows the mover to recreate the original interior at the nursing home, only in a smaller version. He often does it so well, that people ask themselves: “I moved? I never moved!” Knowing where you are, what you have done and what is going to happen – our brain finds these things very important. And that ability is affected by dementia. Can you imagine having to brush your teeth and suddenly not remembering how it works? When you enter your bathroom, your brain brings the image of the toothbrush to the front. With dementia, you are no longer able to make that visual selection. Consequently, setting the breakfast table with lots of different dishes and spreads totally works the wrong way. Instead, take away as much as possible and only keep what is needed. People with dementia need order.
Dementia and Art – three works from Kunstuitleen Rotterdam
Which works from the Rotterdam Art Library, for instance, would be interesting to people who have dementia?
For older Rotterdammers with dementia, Rotterdamse Kolencentrale Waalhaven by Frits Rotgans is worth checking out. It shows a scene from the 1950’s, their ‘reminiscence period’. When you strike up a conversation about this period, you can bring back a great deal of meaningful, beautiful memories. Think about the coal merchant and how you would burn coal at home and gather around the stove.
Frame of Reference by Bert Sissingh also shows something from the reminiscence periode, but now it is an image of togetherness and social relations. That is an important aspect in life for everyone, whether you have dementia or not.
And then finally, Zonder Gedachten by I. Simons can provide a nice way to start a conversation about thoughts and experiences. Are you ever without thoughts? How does that feel? Does it feel good?