Tactile Art Project

Posted Thursday, January 31st, 2013

Dear Blog Readers,

Working on artwork for such an important issue, the following is in order to increase dementia awareness to the community at large.

Written chronologically these next few posts will show some of our information on dementia and treatments, journeying through  the making process- of  research, design and construction, to our finished prototype-stage art piece at 43″ x 45″ (pictured right).

In a few posts’ time we will be able to share with you our second artwork that we are currently working on.

Stay tuned and happy reading!

At the start

Back in May Phil Thomas Gwanwyn Festival Coordinator at Age Cymru came to Cardiff School of Art & Design to give an introductory talk about funding for a Tactile Art installation, designed to be used in a hospital setting for patients with mental health and dementia conditions. The majority of those present did not know much about dementia, myself included (Adam), but came away more informed, with facts, statistics and through Phil’s clear passion a greater understanding and hope with the ever developing care and treatment of said sufferers.

Driving our motivation was the knowledge that our artwork could be used by carers and independently to soothe and interact with patients in our local community. We wish to address and promote creative collaborative solutions to potentially assist in improving people’s well-being.


During the week of 20-26 May 2012 whilst venturing into Cardiff city centre to discuss our group’s art direction, we came across a Dementia Awareness Week 2012 stall. Gaining information and statistics from the health professional on duty helped us to further understand how dementia isolates the sufferer and the families around them, but how there is so much more to dementia than is generally perceived.

Alzheimer’s Society – Five Things You Should Know About Dementia

This is a real and ever increasing societal issue with about 750,000 people in the UK having dementia, with this number expected to double in the next thirty years.The Department of Health state:

“The Government is committed to improving the care and experience of people with dementia and their carers by transforming dementia services to achieve better awareness, early diagnosis and high quality treatment at every stage and in every setting, with a greater focus on local delivery of quality outcomes and local accountability for achieving them.”


There are certain initial things to look for and ways families and professionals’ research and review developments in dementia sufferers. Assessing severity of: Tactile issues, visual perception, reminiscence, cognitive ability & attention span. Once assessments have been completed dementia sufferers are categorised as:

Mild – Moderate – Severe

In severe cases the patient shows serious damage to their perceptual ability.

Through understanding these categories we realised our artwork had to be open to interpretation, in order to be multi-purpose and usable, ranging from visual to tactile engagement. In order for us to enhance our ideas,  we researched other tactile walls (http://tiny.cc/f98prw) and concluded that we had some strong concepts, that were not as minimal as others and that we could really push home our interpretation of a wholesome, multi-sensory experience.


We saw great interest and successes in what was currently available, such as through Bright Light rooms that lower anxiety, conversation and activity classes to encourage expressions of opinion, and reminiscence, and tactile sessions.

In Bristol reminiscence was available through the reconstruction of a WWII village next to and for a care home. Patients could identify, relate and converse with the familiar. With dementia short term memory is lost early but long term memory stays intact for a considerably greater length of time.

These led us to cognitive stimulation as a key attribute in getting patients physically and mentally active, interacting with objects and coming up with solutions for tasks and puzzles. We found various special need objects and toys that took our interest, but became quickly aware that as dementia is not age bound these items are tailored for all. Art and art practices have shown great signs in helping dementia sufferers creatively express themselves.

We are therefore keen to explore how combining elements of fine art, applied arts and decorative arts could benefit all categories and ages within one session/viewing. Such as with children enjoying the pictorial qualities and tactile nature of artwork first, while more learned individuals would/could try to analyse and critique the work in relation to their own experiences, a certain place or point in time. Our goal is to motivate individuals into relaying expressive and informative communication to family and carers, despite any barrier.

Reminiscent Rooms

Stimulating reminiscence and memory recall was an important consideration when designing the “Prototype”. We wanted to increase every chance of recognitive stimulation, whether that was through a certain texture or a familiar pattern, so decided to look back to 1950’s and 1960’s wall paper patterns for inspiration.

Environments like reminiscent rooms are increasingly being used to calm patients in care homes and hospital settings. They transport people back to more unforgettable times and settings, stirring fond memories.

It is popularly believed that using these set-ups reduces the need to administer medication, such anti-psychotic drugs.

When discussing the care home  reminiscence room pictured, Sue Linsley, manager of Coombe End Court in Marlborough, Wiltshire states that it

“plays an important role in reducing the use of medication – it’s very, very effective”. (http://tiny.cc/snmprw)

Bristol Royal Infirmary also use reminiscent set-ups and state:
“For us and staff it generates conversation with people with dementia about what they can remember and brings a sense of calm”. (http://tiny.cc/vpmprw)

Llandough Hospital

As our artwork is to be placed within the new mental health unit at Llandough, a site visit with Simone Joslyn, Clinical Project Lead – Adult Mental Health Unit, was conducted before its operational ‘opening’. Simone was very informative and gave us practical advice on things to consider, such as avoiding obtrusive and potentially harmful elements to our work and the use of imagery that could elicit a negative response. We went back to the studio more informed and inspired, and in sheer admiration of the facilities and therapies sourced and now available at Llandough. Future assessment, care and treatment of mental health patients here looks very bright and is a fantastic asset to the community at large.

Art Therapy

There are also varying forms of art therapy currently, helping participants improve their creation expression and “re-find” their voice.

They come in forms such as:

  • Tactile Surfaces
  • Puzzles
  • Visual Recollection – eg. Archival images

Art Workshops are very beneficial to initiate group activity reducing feelings of isolation through activities such as:

  • Memory Quilting
  • Painting Sessions
  • Gallery & museum guided tours, such as at ‘Meet Me in MoMA’ & Fine Arts Museum in Boston.

It is clear through these treatment forms that the viewing of art, processes creative expression, stimulating the mind. Therefore by using varying materials within our artwork, we hope to vary the viewer’s focus, creating individual activities throughout the composition.

Help Carers

Carers can use verbal instructions with hand motions – ‘zooming in’ and focusing on individual areas of art, helping to start the process of de-sensitising the patient in a fun and non-confrontational manner. This activity will cognitively engage & stimulate the brain that always wants to learn, lowering anxiety, depression, isolation and loneliness.

Patients take the lead for exploration of the art and if there is a negative response to a feature, carers can avoid provocation or over-stimulation by making note and focusing attention to another area or aspect of the art. This all develops the bond between carers and sufferers through sensory input at their own pace.

Artists with Dementia

Through all stages of Alzheimer’s disease, sight perception and processing of visual information deteriorates. To fully comprehend this in an effective manner we wanted to find a source where this could be analysed consistently.  An interesting study discussed and visualised the changes in professional artists’ practice throughout all stages of dementia. It shows the changing artists’ technique and composition from geometric and realism to extreme abstraction in form and colour.

A clearer way to understand art processing and language with dementia sufferers:

“Visual Art in Alzheimer Disease: A tool for therapy, research or both?” – http://tiny.cc/5k0mrw

Current Mental Health Products

We mentioned previously that our inspiration for the prototype design came from a variety of areas. Through our initial research into products that aid mental health, we discovered a continuous use of bright colours, squishy silicone based products and liquid or gel based products, some of which included puzzles and cognitive challenges.

Some of these silicone based products reminded us of the effects that can be achieved through a material called Golden Gel.

The products that we found most intriguing though were those that integrated opposing characteristic through materials, such as combining textures that are coarse and smooth or cold and warm. This could also be done through light and dark colours. By integrating opposing characteristics into our tactile art piece we hoped to increase the possibility for stimulation.

We also came across products and therapies that were not only based on cognitive challenges but could also stimulate reminiscence by introducing objects of function and objects from different decades.We wish to create our art with elements of these vibrantly colourful and tactile products so that they may assist carers in assessing patients, through their interaction and reaction with the work.

Verbal and cognitive engagement with sufferers proves an ongoing obstacle, and with this degenerative condition making interaction for families, friends and carers ever more a challenge, we strongly believe the use of art can be of great benefit.

Art can be the bridge for communication

We will merge current objects and products, but into visual and tactile artwork that can provide those with dementia new opportunities and avenues to communicate self-expression and converse with loved ones. They will not have direct puzzles to solve as this could lead to pressure with problem solving, distressing the individual.

A significant reason why we wished to get involved in this commission is well summarised in The International Council on Active Aging’s article ‘Art as Therapy’ (http://tiny.cc/eirprw)

“artists use their skills in different ways that would give back to the community”.

Art can assist self-expression when verbal skills and memory starts deteriorating. It can also encourage family and community engagement, providing new source of excitement, hope, happiness & reconnection through creative pursuits. Artistic expression allows non-verbal expression of emotions, bypassing cognition and can facilitate reminiscing.


The University of Sussex undertook two studies: In the late 1990s- Art therapy proved more affective than being in a group that socialised and talked. The creative process itself, not just the social component, helped relieve participant’s depression. In their 2006 study they confirmed their previous findings, that Art therapy improved mood and cognition in participants more than social activity participation alone.
Artistic endeavours target the still healthy areas of the brain, with our mind trying to rewire and find new ways to recollect and converse information. Benefits improving quality of life:

  • improve self-esteem
  • reduce depression and anxiety
  • affirming a person’s existence
  • increasing concentration, orientation, fine motor skills
  • reduce agitation
  • greater social interaction
  • cognitive improvements
  • increased mobility
  • increased food intake
  • improved mood and attention span
  • less stress