The arts help to heal the spirit

The Society for the Arts in Dementia Care offers classes in the arts to seniors with dementia or healthy seniors concerned about memory loss

Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka runs the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care and will begin arts workshops this summer in Vernon.

Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka runs the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care and will begin arts workshops this summer in Vernon.

Fear and stigma are two words commonly associated with the words Alzheimer’s and dementia. Dr. Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka would like to add another word: creativity.

As the chair of the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care, Gottlieb-Tanaka said it’s time to take a more comprehensive approach to working with people with dementia, and that includes a focus on creativity.

“There is such a fear in the public from a diagnosis of dementia and then the stigma attached to it, that older people and their families many times will deny themselves even a fun engagement that has a great potential to help, that they will not associate themselves with anything that is linked to memory activity,” she said. “The first reaction in many people is that nothing is wrong with them. They are afraid of the reaction of families and friends more than the fear of the symptoms themselves.”

Gottlieb-Tanaka calls this a tragedy, and said the awareness that many people now have of the importance of being physically active now needs to extend to the brain.

“Our brains need care as well, and yet the embarrassment of being diagnosed with dementia or even coming across as being concerned about one’s memory is enough for many not to do anything,” she said. “We are still studying the causes and while there is no cure, we need to do whatever we can to postpone it.”

And that’s why the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care is offering the Creative Expression Activities Program (CEA Program) and the Memory Café to seniors in the North Okanagan. Based on Gottlieb-Tanaka’s work and research developed over the last 15 years, the program is a combination of the visual and performing arts as it is linked to health issues and well-being in older adults, especially those diagnosed with early to moderate dementia.

“What can be better than being engaged in painting, reminiscing, dancing, storytelling, acting, cooking, designing, learning new things, singing, sharing dreams and philosophical approaches to life lessons learned, shared faith, beliefs and spiritual ideas. I can tell you that everyone who has experienced this program just loved it. It is healing our souls, and isn’t this worthwhile trying?”

The program, which begins in July at the Schubert Centre, at Kindale on 30th Avenue and Kindale at Seaton Centre, is designed to accommodate the needs of older people, 55 and up, who still live at home and function well, or may need some limited help.

“Gary Arbuckle, director of services for Kindale, is graciously offering on behalf of his organization space for the CEA Program.”

The program is open to healthy seniors who are concerned about memory loss and would like to do something about it, as well as isolated seniors who might be reluctant to participate in programs administrated in adult day care centres or any other centre associated with dementia.

It is based on a comprehensive approach to dementia care based on the individual’s past, present and future, on body/soul and mind aspirations, on 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 caregiver and therefore increase the quality of life for both.”

Gottlieb-Tanaka has taken a circuitous route to working in the field of gerontology and conceiving the CEA program, for which she won an award from the American Society of Aging and the MetLife Foundation.

Born and raised in Israel, she graduated in 1976 from the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and in 1980 received a master’s of architecture degree from the University of British Columbia. After working in architecture for about 30 years and raising her two children, she returned to school to pursue a new direction in gerontology, specifically in the study of creative expression, dementia and the therapeutic environment. She earned her PhD from UBC in 2006 in the Institute of Health Promotion Research and the Interdisciplinary Studies Program.

She and her husband, Mineo Tanaka, a retired architect, have recently moved back to his home town of Vernon.

“I always loved being with older people and didn’t mind listening to their stories; I found comfort in being with older people. My parents are Holocaust survivors and so I never had grandparents and was always drawn to other people’s grandparents.

In the late ‘90s, Gottlieb-Tanaka had the opportunity to work with a senior who had recently moved to Vancouver and whose daughter was looking for someone to spend time with her.

“Ruth was an incredible woman. She also had advanced dementia, but I thought she was charming, everything she said was interesting, but there was a limit with how much I could talk with a stranger.”

Wanting to do more, Gottlieb-Tanaka paid a visit to the public library but found nothing there on the topic of older people and creativity. At the UBC library, she had a librarian type in the key words, creativity and dementia, but found nothing.

Almost 50 years old, she said her heart skipped a beat when she realized that she had discovered this gap in knowledge on a topic that had only just touched her consciousness.

“When I got home, I walked in the door with a smile on my face and told my husband, ‘I’m going back to school.’  And this is how it started.”

The Society for the Arts in Dementia Care is a non-profit organization that grew out of the success of the First International Conference on Creative Expression, Communication and Dementia at UBC in May 2005.

“The society is based on my PhD studies, the psychosocial approach to dementia care. It was initially a tough sell as people were used to dealing with health issues based only on the physical and medical model.”

She said if a cure is not found, by 2021 there will be 600,000 people with dementia in Canada.

“If you suspect something is wrong, have the courage to go to your doctor. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I suspected I had something wrong with my memory and the doctor said take some art activity twice a week and come back and we’ll reassess you.

“People are easily living longer. We are more aware of how to keep our quality of life. Seniors are the gatekeepers of knowledge. I had to do a PhD to tell me the fifth commandment: to honour thy father and mother — it doesn’t have to be your own father and mother. Gerontology is our answer for our guilt and how to deal with our elder people.

“But with all my studies, I have learned that the human spirit is so strong. It’s realizing our responsibility towards our elders.”

In running the CEA Program, Gottlieb-Tanaka believes it is important to involve the local arts community while making sure appropriate training is provided for those who would like to interact with seniors with memory impairment. As well, volunteer facilitators will be trained in a two-day workshop because the program is based on volunteer work until funding comes through for paid staff. Benjamin Moore has donated paint, and other contributions are most welcome

“We appreciate their help so much, and I would also like to thank Jack Gareb at the Schubert Centre. He is so amazing and has been on board from day one. He is doing everything he can, always with a smile.”

Those interested in participating in the program, can call the Schubert Centre at 250-549-4201. Participation is by donation. For more information about training as a facilitator, contact Gottlieb-Tanaka at


Vernon Morning Star