Artful Moments was developed by the Art Gallery of Hamilton and St. Peter’s Hospital for late-stage dementia patients. It’s now serving as a template being used across the country.
The Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Artful Moments has been providing art experiences to people with dementia for nearly 12 years. Now, it is being shared as a template for other galleries and museums all across the country.
And it’s been adapted for all kinds of groups, including those with mental illness, brain injury and autism, as well as isolated seniors, youth, and women at risk.
Artful Moments began through a partnership with St. Peter’s Hospital when the behavioural health unit formed a patient focus group to choose art to purchase thanks to a private donation.
Over the course of a couple of months, AGH staff took in 40 to 50 pieces and led discussions about each.
“There was a woman there who didn’t really engage in the conversations,” says Laurie Kilgour-Walsh, wellness lead at AGH. “There was a painting of the Gage Park fountain. She lifted her head, looked at the painting and shared a memory of the fountain. That was the spark for all of this.”
Staff at AGH and St. Peter’s collaborated, found funding and launched a pilot program in 2009 in which participants, along with caregivers, studied and discussed art and completed a guided art activity.
“We did extensive training around dementia and how to engage and encourage participation. It’s about forming the right questions, things that can be answered with thumbs up and down, nods, shakes of the head. With the hands-on art activities, it was important that people could feel successful. Every one of them painted. Every time,” she says.
Caregivers and patients were able to work together, often engaging in ways that weren’t happening otherwise. Kilgour-Walsh says that was an unintended outcome, but is now one of her favourite aspects of Artful Moments.
Out of that pilot came a couple of research papers and new funding allowed the program to continue.
Over the years, art gallery staff and volunteers came to the hospital to lead art activities and patients and families came to the AGH for tours and to visit art collections. Between 400 and 500 people have taken part.
“It’s not about targeting a cure or permanent change but about making a difference in that moment,” says Janis Humphrey, the now-retired lead of the dementia unit at St. Peter’s. She was repeatedly touched by the memories the art evoked and the laughter and conversations that happened.
“People look so forward to the program. They research the art and artists for the week and come in ready to talk about it in a deep way. Some people who have taken part don’t want to talk about dementia. They want an escape. We need to change the stigma around this.”
The program was making an impact, helping those with dementia communicate and find joy. It was expanded to those with dementia living in the community and at long-term care homes, along with those with mental illness, brain injury and autism, as well as isolated seniors, youth, and women at risk.
“Whenever I spoke about the program at conferences, I would get a flurry of calls and emails from people who wanted to know how to do it," says Kilgour-Walsh.
But it was during the pause of COVID that the team behind Artful Moments decided to build a virtual program for its participants that could be replicated by other institutions. The team spent 18 months building all the materials, including a website with 90 videos, training modules and learning materials. Everything is in English and French.
Now, Artful Moments, winner of the 2019 Education Award from Galleries Ontario, is a mixture of in-person and conference call meetings. Participants are provided a binder with weekly materials, as well as an art supplies kit and a sketchbook. Each week comes with a theme, such as looking north, women in art, storytelling in art, and abstract painting.
“This isn’t about art history or creating an artist, it’s about creating an authentic experience and connections and the feeling that what they contribute is valuable,” says Kilgour-Walsh.
Shannon Stanners, a speech-language pathologist at St. Peter’s who was part of the team that developed the program, accompanies her father-in-law Ian to Artful Moments. He really doesn’t remember the sessions from one to the next but he always enjoys them while he’s there, she says.
“He really shines at the art gallery. The questions and the discussions and the activities are set up to avoid failure. It doesn’t matter if he does a different art project than what was intended. He feels validated when people ask about his art. He loves to compliment others on their work.”
The last iteration of Artful Moments at AGH was a mixture of in-person and conference call meetings. Participants were provided a binder with weekly materials, as well as an art supplies kit and a sketchbook. Each week came with a theme, such as looking north, women in art, storytelling in art, and abstract painting.
After discussions about art examples, participants took part in an activity accompanied by step-by-step instructions.
It’s exciting to present the program to the world, says Kilgour-Walsh.
“If others follow our framework, it will bring joy to a lot of people.”