Arts-based education program for people with dementia

The idea: Different from art therapy, Kathleen's pilot project showed the benefits of arts-based education for people in moderate to later stages of dementia--improved communication, skills acquisition, social interaction and improved self-esteem. 

My name is Kathleen Downie.  I am an artist, educator and researcher in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Recently, as part of my graduate work in adult education I conducted a pilot project and eventual study to see if persons with Alzheimer’s and related dementias would benefit from a dynamic arts-based education program tailored to adapt to their cognitive differences and respect and build upon their retained knowledge and skills.

I recognized that many of the people attending the Alzheimer’s day care program worked very hard to relate to and connect with me.  I wondered if they would enjoy participating in a creative, artful process, and further if such an opportunity would assist in their communication and contribute to new learning. Would the experience have meaning for them? Would it bolster their self-esteem, and contribute to a positive social experience for them?  I wondered about the benefit of meeting for a class once a week, and beyond this how it might benefit their families and caregivers?  Might persons with more advanced dementia learn and benefit   in much the same way as those at earlier stages of the disease?

The research study was implemented at  Senior People’s Resources in North Toronto (SPRINT, and engaged ten participants in painting classes that met once a week for one hour over a ten-week period.

As it turned out, all of the participants responded positively to the weekly opportunity to paint and half of this group excelled, working through each phase of the process.  The study was a true success because it contributed to improved self-esteem, communication and social interaction. Furthermore, several of the participants demonstrated the acquisition of new skills, and developed a distinctive painting style.  These participants also openly shared their work, praised their accomplishments and stated that they felt they had learned something new. 

By using an open-ended, personalized approach, (see the link to the guide PDF below) I was able to shape the painting process by employing simple and suitable techniques, resources and sources of inspiration in response to the needs of each individual.  

This achievement alone could not have happened had I decided to engage this group in crafting a finished product using prescribed processes and techniques. While crafting is certainly a valuable form of recreation, its prescriptive method and inclination toward predictable outcomes lacks the qualities associated with artful, open-ended creative work, which is unpredictable in nature.  As a result, such creative work requires a sensitive and flexible approach that draws upon an awareness of the therapeutic value of creative processes. However, this is not to be confused with art therapy.  Rather, it is a teacher/ learner experience that is richly satisfying.  The goal is to facilitate opportunities to create art and give voice to expression through the arts. 

The program also built mutual trust and reciprocity with and among the participants. They enjoyed sharing and talking about their work with their fellow learners. In turn, these qualities contributed to the expression of positive feelings, improved self-esteem, sense of purpose and communication.

I have also benefited in profound ways, both personally and professionally. The most profound influence upon my life is to have gained such wonderful relationships with elder people who, despite some cognitive loss, accepted and nurtured me through their presence, participation and response to the process.  This program was so successful that I am actively pursuing ways to develop, promote and implement arts-based educational programs in a variety of community and care settings for Alzheimer’s learners.

Download Kathleen's GUIDE for Developing Painting Lessons for People with Moderate to Advanced Dementia

ADDENDUM: December 30, 2012

Kathleen was interviewed by Dr. Brian Goldman on CBC (Canada) for his show White Coat, Black Art on Art and Medicine. Click here for the link to the show's page, then click "Listen" on the page.

ADDENDUM: July 23, 2012

Hi Everyone, 

I'm just sending this along to share news of the exhibit that I have curated for the Alzheimer's Society of Toronto.  This is a culminating exhibition and celebration of the research study that I conducted two years ago at SPRINT.  Of course, you are welcome to attend the opening on August 13, or if you have a chance to drop by the Society another time, the exhibit will be in place until the end of August.
Best wishes, 
Published on 08 May 2012
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Art Therapy

Hi Brian,
Last summer I had the opportunity to do my internship for my Associate Degree in Social & Human Services with a focus in Gerontology. I wanted to paint with the older adults so much but was at a loss to know how to begin. The man in charge of Recreation had paints, brushes and canvases. He encouraged me to feel my way around and see what could happen. I spent time just getting to know the residents. I found one lady who was very enthusiastic about trying something new. She is 92 and had never painted. So I printed off a bunch of paintings, colorful uncomplicated images. She picked out the one she wanted and off we were to becoming each others teacher. Slowly another person joined us, then more and more. The staff in Recreation became very involved as it took on a life of it's own. I suggested an art show and also that we should make greeting cards from the art. I wanted to leave something behind so that they could have funds to keep the program going. It was a huge community event. The artists were so proud. Many of the residents who didn't participate now wanted to join in. As of today the program is still going strong.

Speaking UP to the person with dementia

This is such an important point, and one we regularly highlight... to speak with the person with dementia with respect and recognition of their life experience, intelligence, sensitivity, appreciation and adulthood... regardless of what stage of dementia the person may be experiencing. This 'expectation of adult connection' (without any pressure to respond) is a key feature of our work too at Creativity In Care (over ten years practice-research). Thank you for sharing your process too. It is all about process. Arts, music, performance and all forms of creativity offer us incredibly deep ways to connect with people. It is uplifting work. Glad to meet you here. Thank you.

Teaching people with dementia

Hello Brian, thank you for your comment. I appreciate your feedback. There is so much to say in response to your questions. Would you email me at or at and we can have more of a conversation. So many wonderful things are happening in this field so follow your heart and go for it! My students with dementia respond well to authentic art making experiences. By this I mean interesting art materials and discussions about art and creating compositions. As far as paints go I have used water colours and acrylics with huge success. Just stay away from obviously toxic materials. But school grade materials like poster paints and crayons might be best left out of the equations. I regard my students with dementia as sophisticated and knowledgeable individuals. I hope this is helpful. Best wishes - Kathleen

art therapy and dementia

Hi Kathleen, I am currently in my 3rd year of a BA(HONS) Fine Art at Plymouth University here in Cornwall England, and for my undergraduate thesis I thought of writing about art as a therapy tool I also work in a dementia care home for the elderly and would love to run an art group: is it hard to set up, do you need any special training, would it be better to use class-room friendly paints. I am sorry to hassle you but I just finished reading your article and just had to email a response, any help, advise or webb sites you could recommend would be of great help
Thanks for you time and hope to here back


Hello, well done! Thank you very much for your time, efforts, and results; and then taking the time to tell us about it.

Arts-based education for people with Alzheimer's

Thank you! I'm so happy that this is useful. K

Reply to comment | Alzheimer's Disease International

Specifically what the infoI was browsing for - thx for the post


As someone who saw the rapid deterioration of his grandfather and grandmother at the hands of Alzheimer's, I must say that I wish I had come across the article and its ideas before such circumstances. My grandmother loved religious art and my grandfather painting landscapes. It would have been nice to have them speak about their work and meet others.