SINGAPORE – For Mr Wong Loke Kit, 60, and his wife Sim Peck Hoon, 57, a new art programme designed for people with dementia and their caregivers at the National Gallery Singapore (NGS) has offered more opportunities to communicate and bond.
Mr Wong, a part-time project manager, is the primary caregiver for his wife, who was diagnosed with dementia in September 2020. The couple had a chance to experience Art With You, using a Caregiver’s Guide provided by NGS, which guides conversations using works of art as a trigger.
Mr Wong said in an e-mail interview: “The programme brings back many fond memories of her younger days while she was growing up, especially for those works that featured the old Boat Quay and Chinatown. She started telling me stories of her younger days.”
Ms Sim was a quantity surveyor before her diagnosis and is now a housewife. She said: “I enjoyed viewing so many nice works and I felt very happy, as the atmosphere is nice and comfortable.”
The Caregiver’s Guide is split into three sections – people, food and stories – and provides thoughtful questions such as “what fruit do you see in this picture” and “who do you think is in this picture” in increasing depth for people with dementia. As they view each work with their caregivers, meaningful discussion blossoms, creating a memorable experience for both.
People with dementia and caregivers can also participate in free guided group tours. The minimum size of each group is two pairs and the maximum is four pairs. Group visits are available only to community groups and have to be arranged beforehand (e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org).
The programme also includes an art packet with string, coloured paper and plasticine clay for people with dementia to create their own works of art in response to what they have seen. These kits can be used at home or at NGS.
Ms Alicia Teng, 39, assistant director of community and access at NGS, said: “Besides art appreciation and art making, a key part of the programme design focuses on encouraging participants to share their experiences through what they’ve created and enjoyed during the session.”
According to NGS, Art With You is the first permanent art engagement programme created for people with dementia and their caregivers.
With Singapore’s ageing population and rising dementia numbers in mind, NGS started a study in art engagement therapy two years ago in partnership with Dementia Singapore, a social service agency specialising in dementia care
Previous studies with Dementia Singapore show that art engagement not only enhances the well-being of those with dementia, but also creates a positive attitude about dementia for people involved. Those involved in the programme were better educated on dementia, reducing the stigma and bringing awareness to the condition.
Dementia Singapore’s chief executive Jason Foo, 60, said the main objective was “to develop capabilities within the gallery to accommodate persons with dementia and their care partners”.
In 2019, one in 10 seniors in Singapore over the age of 60 had dementia. The Health Promotion Board estimates that by 2030, nearly 152,000 people will be diagnosed with dementia. These figures have prompted more community initiatives to make Singapore more inclusive, with dementia-friendly neighbourhoods and other programmes.
Mr Wong said: “With this programme, we can have an enjoyable time in such a nice and comfortable space. It also creates a good bonding time for me and my wife.”
The programme was developed with Dementia Care Mapping, a method of close observation to see how people living with dementia respond to the care they receive. This method, developed by the Dementia Research Group at the University of Bradford in England, measures the well-being of those with dementia through close observation.
People living with dementia require more attention from those around them to ensure their basic psychological needs are met. Through measuring social interactions, Dr Donald Yeo, 51, a clinical neuropsychologist with Kall Psychology, and his research team were better able to design the programme to maximise each participant’s sense of personal fulfilment.
NGS chief executive Chong Siak Ching, who declined to give her age, said: “Creating safe, welcoming and social spaces is critical. It allows people living with dementia and their families the freedom to venture beyond their homes or dementia care centres to connect with society for a healthier, happier and more fulfilled life.”
NGS has trained front-of-house and security staff to assist people with dementia, and created a Calm Room for neurodivergent visitors.
The Calm Room, designed in collaboration with autistic artist-researcher Dr Dawn-Joy Leong, a board member of Disabled People’s Association, opened in June 2022. It offers a quiet space for people feeling overwhelmed or overstimulated by their surroundings. Sensory kits and weighted blankets are available to help regulate stress response and minimise sensory overload.
Dementia Singapore’s Mr Foo applauded the efforts to be inclusive. “The gallery is not only an iconic national monument and a leading visual arts institution, but also a prime example of being a forward-thinking dementia-friendly destination.”
Ms Sim said: “Through this programme, it shows that people living with dementia can still have a fruitful and enjoyable life. I greatly appreciate both organisations for their collaboration. At least people living with dementia, like myself, are not forgotten by society.”
What: Art With You
Where: National Gallery Singapore, 1 St Andrew’s Road
When: 10am to 7pm daily
Admission: Free for people with disabilities and their caregivers, Singaporean locals and permanent residents, and Cara (digital platform for people with dementia and their caregivers) members