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Paintings engage memories, enliven people with dementia, study says

Alison Phinney, left, Landon Mackenzie, centre, and Michael Wilson look over an art catalogue at the Yale Road Centre, a residential care home in Surrey, B.C., on Dec. 10. The three are involved in a study looking at the impact of art on dementia patients.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

In the lobby of the Yale Road Centre care facility in Surrey, a painting beckons. Installed next to a bulletin board covered with activity schedules and other notices, Infinite adds square splashes of colour to the institutional dullness – even with a bunch of empty water-cooler bottles pushed up against it.

The painting, by Stewart Hall, is not mere decoration. It made its way to this transitional care facility through a study researching the impact of art on people with dementia.

The art, the study's authors have found, did have an impact – but it wasn't what they had expected. The work didn't simply help orient the residents or liven up the space. It enlivened the residents.

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The study – led by a nursing professor, a renowned Canadian painter and a Fraser Health Authority planner – found the paintings served as a window to memories, a vehicle for hope and a catalyst for engagement, with some residents offering confident critiques as they made their way down the halls.

"These are templates for the imagination of the viewers, whether they're in the Vancouver Art Gallery or the Fraser Health facility," says Landon Mackenzie, an artist and professor at Emily Carr University of Art + Design.

Prof. Mackenzie has been living with Alzheimer's in her own living room – where she moved her mother in 2013.

Around the same time, Prof. Mackenzie was approached by Michael Wilson, senior facilities planning leader with Fraser Health. He was overseeing a renovation for the Yale Road Centre – where people primarily with dementia or cognitive impairment are housed temporarily, generally awaiting long-term residential care placement.

Because people with dementia are inclined to wander and cognitive limitations often lead to disorientation and confusion – and because the facility was so cookie-cutter – Mr. Wilson thought installing paintings with different themes on each generic-looking floor could help residents recognize which floor was home.

He also thought using artwork depicting familiar subject matter could suggest an appropriate activity for the space – say, pictures of food in the dining area or a painting of toilet paper outside a bathroom.

Mr. Wilson pitched the idea of an academic research partnership with Emily Carr University and connected with Prof. Mackenzie. Observing the effects of Alzheimer's on her mother, she was keen to help. "I had no doubt the study would be worthwhile," she says. (Her mother, now 88, is still living in her Vancouver home.)

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Alison Phinney, a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Nursing – and a dementia expert – joined the study next and accessed funding from UBC.

At Emily Carr's Audain School of Visual Arts, Prof. Mackenzie enlisted 18 students to create work for the facility. "We're going to be good citizens," she told them. "Are you on board?"

They were. "They spent hours and days and days on each of those works," she said, while presenting the results of the study, along with Mr. Wilson and Dr. Phinney, to Fraser Health earlier this month. "What was amazing was watching them really putting their heart and soul into saying we want to make good paintings."

They created 150 paintings, about 55 of which were installed.

They had to work with some parameters, including: no bridges or water in the foreground (which could be seen as an invitation to jump), nothing depicting extreme or turbulent conditions (which could be upsetting) and no abstraction (it's unpredictable how someone with dementia might respond to something so open to interpretation).

However, Prof. Mackenzie secured permission to include patterns, having observed her mother's positive interactions with patterns at home. Indeed, one of the study's findings is that patterns, along with landscapes, were particularly evocative, prompting some dynamic interaction involving residents.

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The paintings provoked memories and engagement with both the art and other people. They became a way to connect with visitors and facility staff, who were pleased to have something more meaningful to talk to the residents about beyond time-for-your-meds type exchanges.

"It gave them a chance to get to know the residents better," says Dr. Phinney, who led the study. "The paintings invited stories. And even when [the stories were] fragmented and hard to understand, we did better understand this person with a history and desires and feelings of sorrow and feelings of joy that we all might relate to."

Wei Yu Chen's Ma Ma Knight, an oil painting of a white horse against a rust-coloured wall, is installed near a common area where these days a Charlie Brown-sized Christmas tree sits beneath a large TV monitor pumping out carols.

One resident saw that white horse and a memory surfaced. "I'd like to get up on its back and ride it," she told one of Dr. Phinney's nursing students. "I've been riding horseback since I was two years old," she said and launched into a story about bringing sandwiches and coffee out to the men working in the field, riding bareback when she was about nine.

"Wow, that was freedom, was it?" the student responded.

"That was freedom all right," the resident replied. "I miss the farm."

Another resident, encountering a painting of flowers, said, "It makes me feel like getting out of here so I can see the actual flowers."

"The paintings gave them a way to consider where they've been and where they hope to be," Dr. Phinney reports. "They're kind of imagining this future where they'd rather be and it carries the flavour of desire and wanting to escape."

They also engaged with the aesthetics of the paintings. "People assumed the role of art critic from the very start," Dr. Phinney says. "And they actually took the role quite seriously."

One resident pronounced on a painting of sheep in the grass: "I find it's very, very childish. It's painted for children." The same woman also gave the thumbs-down to a toilet-paper-roll painting. "You want my opinion on that?" she said. "It stinks."

Prof. Mackenzie says the study shows the art can make a difference in the day-to-day lives of residents, and she hopes paintings can be incorporated into future designs.

"We can enliven our existing facilities with purposeful art," Mr. Wilson says. "It's a low-cost and high-impact solution."

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