30 years ago, I don’t think such a work could have been written. Our understanding of dementia, the ways it affects both the person living with it and those that are in that person’s lives were so much less understood. But now, Le Pére resonates with so many.
As of 2024, nearly half a million Australians live with dementia. It is the second leading cause of death in Australia and provisional data shows that it will shortly become our leading cause of death. Without a significant medical breakthrough, 812,000 Australians will have dementia by 2054. Every one of us has or will be touched by dementia whether it be in our families, friends or workplaces.
Since 2007, 7 years before Le Pére was staged, the National Gallery of Australia has been on the forefront of non-pharmaceutical treatment for people living with dementia. Under the guidance of Adrienne Boag, the Gallery started a series of art based workshops called Making It. It is an extraordinary project, based on the now widely influential research conducted by Sarah MacPherson, clinical psychologist Dr Mike Bird et al at the Australian National University. It was through these workshops that people living with dementia had the “opportunity for intellectual stimulation, creative engagement, social interaction, and personal reflection” (Camic et al., 2016; Cavalcanti Barroso et al., 2022; D'Cunha et al., 2020; Ullán et al., 2013)
These workshops take on two dimensions:
- Group conversations, involving viewing and discussing paintings, photographs, sculptures, textiles and other objects found in the Gallery
- Art-making sessions, inspired by the works that they have discussed. Such pieces can include painting, drawing, working with clay and story building
When you think about it, the Gallery is an obvious location for the program. You are surrounded by works with a seemingly endless variety of pieces to discuss. Connections between pieces can be made which further enhances insights and stimulation.
Another characteristic that distinguishes these programs from other art interventions is that these sessions are conducted with gallery or museum staff who are experts in their field. Combined with dementia-specific training the staff are an invaluable resource to those with dementia.
However, having these workshops in the Gallery causes large access issues, whether it be geographical, mobility or staff availability. For this to be a national program it was necessary to bring it to them – into their homes, residential aged care facilities or local art spaces. This was further compounded by COVID 19.