Dementia Centred

By DSDC Guest

August 5th, 2019

Art through dementia

My wife Mary had spent a lifetime as a primary teacher in the Lothians, Scotland, bringing up three children and also working in her local church as an organist, choir conductor and liturgist. She prepared children for first communion and confirmation and conducted marriage preparation classes, all with great energy and dedication. In 1994 she was awarded a Master’s degree in Pastoral Studies, have followed three and a half years of intensive reflection and group study.

Mary had retired from teaching in 2002 but one of the experiences she had around that time was art therapy. One of her friends described it as ‘a way of looking inside… making visible the feelings that we would rather remained invisible.’ Mary had never taken drawing and painting seriously at school and considered that she ‘couldn’t draw’.

It wasn’t long after that when Mary was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and later, with aphasia and frontal lobe dementia, a disease that has softly embraced her.

For a number of years after diagnosis, Mary attended Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy but after a good start she slowly began to lose the ability to make music. Then, between April 2015 and May 2017, Mary visited an NHS registered Art Therapist and a new language of form and colour dramatically emerged. Her therapist noted that ‘over time she developed a visual language of her own and seemed to take pleasure in the quality of the paint (she worked almost exclusively with watercolour) and she loved to see how colours ran and mixed.  Her work often had a focused and purposeful feel to it and also seemed to be about “sorting” something for her.’


The therapist conjectured that ‘as a result of her condition, much of Mary’s life had to be organised and directed by others and I came to feel that the small window of painting time allowed her to have control over one part of her life, at a pace she could manage, and in which she made very clear decisions about her work.’

After two, years her new-found facility with paint deserted her and she, regretfully, stopped art therapy. However, she continues to go to a local gym where an inspirational fitness instructor keeps her fit and active. Her medication has been considerably reduced and she now enjoys a life of freedom and happiness which self-directed support gives her, with five wonderful personal assistants who pamper and generally care for her. Her artworks remain as a testament to a new-found skill which created luminous and tantalising images out of her dementia and aphasia.

Mary & Michael Turnbull 

~ Michael T R B Turnbull

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Categories: Dementia and the Arts