Murals - nice or nasty?

Published on Read in 6 mins

It is often said that art is “good for people with dementia”.  Art is good for everyone!  The problem when you have dementia is that people impose art on you, sometimes, and you may be forced to experience art that is not to your taste.  One contentious area is the use of murals as “art” in care homes.  I use scare quotes because I don't believe it is art but rather interior decoration, which is more like “fashion”.

Before we start to argue about the philosophy of aesthetics, think about dementia.  Most residents in most care homes have dementia.  Most of the symptoms that cause difficulty in dementia such as those arising from agitation and anxiety are the result of stress. Anything that reduces stress is therefore good for dementia. It is just logic.

Experiencing artworks could help to reduce stress, but the effect is very personal so you must be careful in communal settings.  Not everyone will like what you choose, so something neutral makes common sense, even if others might think it is boring.  Extraordinary images may cause distress.  I’ve seen a wall painted to look as if there is a welsh dresser. When I asked, I was told “If there was a real welsh dresser they might break the plates and cut themselves.”  Let's be clear. People with dementia don’t throw plates around without good reason.  Secondly, if you think a cupboard displaying plates is dangerous, why not just decorate the wall with a picture of the Queen, or your general manager?

Hyperreal pictures, also known as "trompe l'oeil" are meant to deceive the eye. It can be fun for those of us who are well and like to be teased.  In dementia, it is only justifiable if, for example for safety, you want to disguise the exit door to look like a book case, to prevent unwanted exiting.  Otherwise it just adds to confusion.  No one with dementia wants to live in a film set or be made more confused.  

Finally, at the risk of offending lots of willing and well-meaning enthusiasts, I also have concerns about leaving up amateur murals, done for fun.  The "doing" is the important and interesting distraction for residents.  No one afterwards should have to live with daubs on the wall, made by people passing through or with the help of residents who have also passed on.  Make sure to agree a timescale for whitewashing it over before you start. There is more about the ethics of art and dementia on the website of the Dementia Services Development Trust. They will send you a paper copy of their comprehensive guide to supporting people with dementia through the arts - in exchange for a donation to cover some of their costs.  Or you can download it for free.