Connecting Through the Ages: Youth, and Seniors with Dementia Connect through Art


Opening Minds Through Art Program and Exhibition at THEMUSEUM

"So much of the time, living with dementia is all about what a person can't do," says Kathryn Bender, Opening Minds through Art (OMA) Facilitator from Trinity Village Care Centre. "Living in long-term care, they have very few choices they get to make: when they sleep, eat and bathe . . . but with our Opening Minds through Art program, the emphasis is on what they CAN do. It makes them feel like they still matter."

OMA, a six-to-eight week art program partnering residents living with dementia and art students from nearby Eastwood Collegiate, is all about creating authentic interactions, shared experiences and a feeling of personal value. 

One of the most troubling issues facing those with dementia is isolation. OMA builds bridges across age and cognitive barriers through art-making. Seniors with a strong sense of community belonging have higher odds of good health. "One lady got off her anxiety medicine! Another started speaking after years because of these classes," says Bender. And another said that he didn't think someone so young would ever be interested in him. 'He's my friend.'

"Peter really allowed me to view how he sees things," says Jesse, a Grade 12 student partnered with 77-year-old Peter. "Sometimes, in the middle of the painting, we weren't too sure where we were headed. But our work turned out amazing."

"He was a good teacher," says Peter of Jesse, his eyes brightening as he looks at the work they created together.

Jesse says connecting with Peter opened up more than just his artistic mind: his whole perspective on aging and dementia grew. "I have an IEP at school" (Individualized Education Plan for students who learn differently). "In some ways, I felt like I was learning from an older self."

"That's what's amazing," says Bender. "There's the assumption that the senior is the only one getting something out of OMA, but, in fact, the connection on both sides has been profound!"

Last spring, the artwork was featured in an exhibition at THEMUSEUM as part of "The Aging Dialogues: Sharing Wisdom, Preserving Our Legacies."

"This show fits our mandate to be a community stage perfectly," says THEMUSEUM's David Marskell. "We share stories of living people today. Many of the dementia patients don't have verbal skills, so art is a mode of expression for them to share their experiences and create understanding."

Jesse and Peter attended the opening together. "I showed him the picture of us from our first session. He looked so excited. He said: 'Holy Mackerel! That's me and you!'"