Art gallery visits for those living with dementia

A special programme arranges for people living with dementia and their carers to be taken for regular visits to Cork’s Crawford Gallery. MARY HASSETT went along to see how it works.
Art gallery visits for those living with dementia

Gillian Cussen with the Bandon Lonradh group in the Crawford Art Gallery. Picture courtesy of Crawford Gallery

VALERIE Van Der Zwan’s face radiates love as she lists the type of boats that her husband, Hugo, designed over a lifetime.

Many of us have probably travelled on the Cape Clear or Arran Island passenger boats her Dutch naval architect husband designed.

On the last Wednesday morning of every month, Valerie and Hugo, who live in Innishannon, join their friends on the Bandon community bus that travels to the Crawford Art Gallery in Cork.

Taking part in the Lonradh programme for people living with dementia and their carers is the highlight of their month.

Lonradh takes its name from the James Scanlon stained glass window which can be seen on the Gallery’s staircase. It comes from the Irish for ‘to illuminate’ or ‘to radiate’.

The sessions, which take place on the first and last Wednesdays of every month, are facilitated by artist and former social worker, Gillian Cussen from Kilworth.

Gillian is the perfect facilitator as she loves people as much as she loves art. The same is true of Emma Klemencic, whose work as co-ordinator of the gallery’s Learn and Explore Programme incorporates the Lonradh sessions.

Lonradh is the only gallery programme in Ireland that offers free monthly visits on a continuous basis for older people who may be experiencing memory problems. The programme is supported by the Crawford Art Gallery, the Alzheimer’s Society of Ireland and Cork Arts Health Programme, HSE.

Group sizes are kept small so that everyone can feel at home in the Gallery’s warm and welcoming atmosphere. Gillian makes it her business to greet the arrivals at the front door.

On a recent visit, the chat was easy and relaxed as Gillian and Emma accompanied the group to the gallery café, where tea and scones are provided free of charge. The participants, who travel from all over the county, greatly appreciate this thoughtful gesture.

Well-fortified, the group headed into the Gallery’s latest exhibition, entitled Stones, Slabs and Seascapes: George Victor Du Noyer’s Images of Ireland. It was brought to life through Gillian’s enthusiastic portrayal of this gifted 19th century self-taught artist and geologist.

Gillian got the group talking about apples as they sat in front of Du Noyer’s wonderfully realistic study of the fruit. She then encouraged them to examine up close his incredibly intricate drawings of the Irish landscape.

Hugo Van Der Zwan pored over a display cabinet containing drawings of boats. “Ships were my job”, he tells me.

When Gillian had finished her talk, Hugo gathered up his foldaway seat and that of his wife, Valerie. He also insisted on putting away my chair.

“Hugo was always a gentleman and that has never changed,” Valerie points out. The couple met when they were both working in the long defunct Verolme Cork Dockyard. They were married three months after they started going out.

The James Scanlon stained glass window in the Crawford Art Gallery from which the Lonradh programme takes its name Picture courtesy of Crawford Gallery
The James Scanlon stained glass window in the Crawford Art Gallery from which the Lonradh programme takes its name Picture courtesy of Crawford Gallery

Together for 43 years, Valerie says she gets through the bad days by remembering the good times.

“I love it here in the Crawford Gallery. It is the highlight of my month and Hugo loves it too,” says Valerie.

“Sometimes, if you go out with other people, they can by judgemental, but here no-one is. I haven’t any artistic bent but I come here for the pleasure and the relaxation” she adds.

Gillian encourages the group to experiment with charcoal when they gather in the Art Room. 

“I’m a firm believer that everyone can draw and paint. It just takes practice and confidence”, she stresses.

“Creativity is one of the last things to go when people have dementia. If you can try and relate some of the stuff in the Gallery to people’s life experience, amazing stories come out and people have incredible insights.

“This can be the first time that some people have had an opportunity to try their hand at art and there can be great talent that you can tap into.”

Emma Klemencic, who is herself an artist, is passionate about opening up the Crawford Art Gallery to everyone. She feels strongly that adults who may be experiencing memory loss have a right to be treated as individuals rather than to be judged by their condition. 

“We try to treat everyone with dignity,” Emma stresses.

Jo Calnan first got involved with the Bandon Lonradh project when she was Nurse Manager with the Bandon and Midleton Alzheimer’s Outreach Service. She is so convinced of its benefits that she has stayed involved as a volunteer following her retirement.

The Alzheimer’s Society funds the Bandon community bus but booking is essential.

The Lonradh Cork sessions, which take place on the first Wednesday of every month from 2pm to 3.30pm, are open to everyone, but new participants need to contact Emma Klemencic in advance.

During the course of their last visit, Jo distributed copies of a calendar featuring all the participants’ art work. 

“A tangible outcome is vital for the project and helps raise self-esteem”, she points out.

Before the session finished up, Gillian led a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ for one of the participants. The delighted birthday lady whipped off her lovely wine coloured hat and took a bow. Everyone laughed and cheered, their faces beaming with happiness.

A very ordinary art room was illuminated by the love and humanity of a very extraordinary group of people.

For more information contact Emma Klemencic at 021-4907862.

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