The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra hopes to stimulate the senses of people living with the debilitating condition.

The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra will offer a newly developed tour aimed at people living with dementia. The specially curated Art and Dementia tour focuses on portraits of famous Australian musicians, composers, actors, and other high profile figures. Of the 274 portraits on display at the gallery, these tours will focus on just three or four, and will include a musical component as well as other sensory accompaniments such as fabric swatches.

The philosophy of the tour is multifaceted: dementia can be very isolating, so the tour offers an opportunity for those with dementia to connect with other people also living with the condition. The tour also aims to stimulate the senses and engage gallery visitors with dementia in discussions about the various Australian luminaries. “Looking at artworks evokes people’s memories and helps them to share their own stories,” said Visitor Services Coordinator Pauline McCreath.

The portraits included on the tour have been carefully chosen, and are among the galleries more figurative paintings, depicting subjects in easily recognisable, everyday scenes. By evoking memories and encouraging discussion it is hoped that the tours will not only improve the mental well-being of dementia patients, but also improve the often depressed psychology of people living with this cruel condition. Tour groups will be kept small, to accommodate carers and to ensure attendees can all access the benefits of the programme.

This new dementia tours initiative at the NPG is similar to the Art and Alzheimer’s programme offered by its sister institution, the National Gallery of Australia, which has been running since 2007. Assessment of this programme by clinical psychologists found the tours to have many beneficial outcomes, including a feeling of “enjoyment and intelligence” among attendees. A study published in the journal, Aging and Mental Health in 2009, observed, “The excess disability observed external to the programme was not an issue within the group context. This, in turn, reinforces the importance of providing interventions that promote ‘normal’ higher level activities for people with dementia.”

The Art and Dementia tour with next run at the National Portrait Gallery on January 19 and February 16, booking essential.

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