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In January 2018, I will be hosting a self-funded charity exhibition/silent auction, where all proceeds will be divided between a selection of local charities. One will be dementia-related; art, research and/or cure (to be announced). It is an issue that is very close to my heart.

Last week, the Australian Bureau Of Statistics released their health and vital statistics for 2016, and for the very first time in recorded history, dementia was the leading cause of death in women in Australia. They also concluded that although heart disease is still the leading cause of death in men, “it's likely that in time this will also be surpassed by dementia as treatments for other leading causes such as heart disease improve and men live longer lives”. They have argued that as life expectancy has increased due to improvements in treatment and prevention of heart disease, there has been a significant increase in deaths from diseases such as dementia, which are associated with old age. Also, dementia is more and more prevalent in early-life than previously recorded.

Dementia is an issue that is close to home for me. My Nan has been living with dementia for fifteen years, a byproduct of undiagnosed bipolar. Having just turned 93 in August, I really enjoy visiting her and Pop weekly, even though the disease has greatly affected the way she communicates. However, art has played a big role in giving her a creative outlet and stabilizing her condition. But I will come to that later.

Pop & Nan (c.1940)

Nioma was born in 1924, the last of eight children, and the granddaughter of a convict. She grew up on a farm in Lakemba, where her father was an owner of horses and the Shakespeare Hotel (now the Coopers Arms) in Newtown. As the youngest child, Nan was well looked after and spoiled. She was a cheeky girl, with very quick wit and cutting sense of humour. She was very pretty with jet-black hair, like her mother’s. After World War II, Nioma married Fred, my Pop, a veteran who drove tanks in the jungles of Borneo against the Japanese. They had two daughters, Wendy and Susan, my mum.

Nan & Mum (c.1961)

Nan never had any major health issues up until she was diagnosed with dementia in 2002. I was still relatively young when it all started, but I still recall visiting her in the psychiatric ward in Sutherland Hospital, and it felt like something out of ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’. My mother recalls:

“Mum started to blow a fuse around the time of the Bali bombings, after the Olympics 2000. She tipped after the funeral of a close friend and family member. She started thinking her mum was living in Dad’s back shed. She took to Dad very violently. I remember her eyes deadened and were just black balls, really Stephen King like. One day there was a 2am panic call from Dad, Mum was flying, hyper, not sleeping, dressed to go to golf and in front yard raving. I arrived to a circus and not knowing what to do, I said I'd drive her to her golf club, and once she was in the car, said we might stop off at the hospital on the way. Unbelievably she calmly agreed. I think she realised that she was ill and odd.

She approached the hospital people raving, and I was standing behind her mouthing that she wasn't right. Many, many hours in emergency, she ranted aggressively in a room, just her and I in a room so they could observe her. They released her as my sister and Dad said she would be ok after many hours. I said no but no one listened and she was sent home. Soon, more mayhem ensued, and she was carted away by the Police, spitting, biting like the Exorcist, superhuman strength. In psychiatric ward, she thought there were terrorists in the lifts, very wild and inappropriately sexual and lewd. Many times in and out of psychiatric wing but because of her advanced age, ended up in the aged dementia ward. She was initially diagnosed as bipolar and manic, and put on lithium but over the years reduced to no drugs that upset her, or with side effects. So right now, just your garden-variety dementia.”

It was a very scary time. It took a long time, but Nan has been in a stable condition for a few years now. By no means is she the headstrong, powerful matriarch she used to be. Even though she is sometimes aloof, and repeats herself often (on bad days), she has used art and doodling to help her maintain a calm version of herself.

My Pop (94) is an avid reader, and every day he still reads the newspaper. However, once he has finished with a newspaper, Nan has got into the habit of drawing on the pictures of every page, back-to-front. She will draw hilarious additions to political figures, celebrities, sportsmen, etc. and they are a joy to view. There is no method to who or what she will draw on, and it is a fascinating insight into her mind. It has got to the point that any piece of paper within reach is under threat from her doodling! When she is doodling, she goes into a trance, and she will disappear into a calm place, and she is happy. She will sit doodling, without contributing to conversation, but every so often she comes out with a witty, funny, cutting remark just like she used to, and it is in those moments I know Nan is still with us.

Alzheimer's Australia CEO Maree McCabe said without a significant medical breakthrough, the number of Australians living with dementia is expected to rise from 413,000 currently to 1.1 million by 2056. One in five Australians will be aged over 65 by 2053 and a quarter of them will have some degree of cognitive impairment. There still is no cure for dementia, and those diagnosed struggle to find the appropriate support and services. This is where art therapy is essential and also demonstrates that art is an important therapeutic tool in managing the effects of the disease.

Like Chris O'Brien Lifehouse with their 'Arterie' program for cancer patients, the Museum Of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery Of Australia both conduct fantastic research programs (ARTFUL & ‘Art & Dementia’), where dementia patients participate in a series of theoretical and practical art activities, and ‘connecting with the world in enriching and life-enhancing ways’. As the disease often isolates patients, the programs encourage interaction, intellectual stimulation, and reconnection with identity with art as the common theme. This is achieved through scheduled visits and tours of galleries, or workshops where patients participate in art-related projects. It is an invaluable source of therapy and facilitates increased health and wellbeing of patients suffering from dementia.

Nan (2017)

As of September 2017, the University of NSW & Neuroscience Research Australia have compiled a new team of researchers to study the cognitive decline associated with dementia. Our cognitive abilities enable us to know who we are, but also enables us to function in the workplace, to make decisions, to participate in society. The first project for the team is working in in collaboration with the World Health Organisation, and will include the development of evidence-based dementia prevention guidelines. L.

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