A Toolkit for Art Activities

“We’re going to talk about birds today and the beautiful sounds and colors they bring to our lives,” Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka, PhD tells her client Sylvia, who was an art teacher before she was diagnosed with dementia. Dalia, the founder of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care in British Columbia, hopes to reconnect Sylvia with her love of birds and invite out her creative abilities through discussion and painting.

“When people living with dementia have purposeful activity while interacting with others, they’re less depressed,” Dalia says. “They find more satisfaction in life. Those who’ve been indifferent and bored suddenly show desires and interests.”

Dalia conceived and developed the Creative Expression Activities Program for people living with dementia. The comprehensive program is based on the individual and includes nurturing body/soul and mind aspirations, improving the physical environment, and training family members and caregivers in their daily interactions. The program emphasizes the importance of activities that encourage creative expressions. As a result, it has the potential to reduce anxiety and stress to both client and care partner and increase the quality of life for both.

Creating a Multi-Sensory Experience

First, Dalia creates an environment rich in visual and sound affects, such as pictures of local and foreign birds, which are either from library books, magazines or calendars. She plays birdsong in the background and shows a short video on birds that was borrowed from a local library or downloaded from YouTube. Dalia orchestrates a discussion about the video, asking what Sylvia liked about it and what it made her think about. She asks open-ended questions, such as, “What do you like about birds? What are your favorites? What kind of bird would you like to be?” She spreads feathers on the table for tactile stimulation.

“Since people have different levels of cognitive and physical abilities, I try to engage as many senses as possible,” Dalia says. “That way, I increase the level of communication and involvement. For example, those who cannot hear well may still be able to smell and touch.”

After the conversation, Dalia passes out paper and invites Sylvia to paint or draw with her. They may start a picture in tandem with Dalia asking Sylvia which bird she’d like to draw.

“Doing creative activities together enriches both individuals and the relationship,” Dalia says.

Creative Sparks

• Apply Dalia’s flexible approach to arts activities to any relevant topic that might interest you and your partner.

• Adapt the ideas to meet your partner’s attention span.

• Think of a subject the two of you would enjoy exploring. Have fun collecting photos, music, video clips, and art supplies. If preparation feels too hard, ask a friend to help, or use a simplified version of this activity.

• Introduce the project, mentioning ways you both can participate. Let your partner know, “This is just for fun. There’s no right or wrong way to do this.”

• At least ten minutes before you’re ready to end, let your partner know you’re winding down.

• Work as equals, side by side, encouraging and helping as needed.

• If desired, post your artworks and share with others.


For more information about Dalia and her work, visit www.cecd-society.org

Consider attending the CECD 7th International Conference, September 8-10, 2016, in Vernon, BC, Canada.

Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. 



  1. drdaliagt on May 24, 2016 at 10:26 am

    Thank you Deborah for posting this article and help promote the Creative Expression, Communication and Dementia (CECD) 7th International Conference on Creativity and Aging, September 8-10, 2016, to take place in beautiful British Columbia, Canada. For more information on registration and abstract submissions, please visit our website: http://www.cecd-society.org and click on Events.

    • deborahshousewrites on May 24, 2016 at 5:41 pm

      Thanks, Dalia. I love the work you’re doing and hope to attend your conference some day.

  2. Deb Edwarda on May 24, 2016 at 2:33 pm

    Just yesterday my Mother and I were wondering what the name would be for a particular bird we were watching through her kitchen window. “Grab your bird book and let’s see,” I said. She succeeded in finding the book and succeeded in looking the bird up. “Did you find it?” I later asked. “Yes,” she said. “well sort of…it’s a thrush but I still haven’t found the kind of thrush.”

    Earlier before the bird sighting, Mom had not been able to sustain a long conversation. Birds and Dogs light up her heart strings and her Memorie is activated.

    • deborahshousewrites on May 24, 2016 at 5:40 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing this, Debbie. I love thinking about the birds “lighting up her heartstrings.”

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