Art as remembrance

The drawings of a dementia patient inspired an aged care RN to transform his work into something more lasting.

When she worked nightshifts in a nursing home, registered nurse Rebecca Stapledon came across a man suffering from severe dementia who would regularly stay awake at night in an agitated state.

“He had come to Australia as a young man from Italy, and he had reverted to his first language, a language no one in the nursing home staff spoke or understood,” Rebecca told The Lamp.

Rebecca noticed that other residents would often have trouble sleeping too. They would “pace the corridors with nothing to occupy them, except disturbing other residents”.

Rebecca, who is also a trained artist, began experimenting with activities to occupy residents during the night. She soon discovered the Italian-speaking resident, now in his 80s and no longer able to read or write, loved to draw.

“I gave him a paper and a biro,” Rebecca says. “First his marks were tentative and he seemed to be trying to write letters. Then he became more engrossed and more fluid in his mark making.

“I just thought ‘Wow, that is amazing that this man is enjoying the process’. His drawings were tight to begin with, and then he started using the whole page. I would just give him more and more pages and he would be really expressing himself.”

Rebecca says the sense of “exuberance” and “joy” in the work was reflected in the man’s behaviour.

“He seemed to find a lot of relief and be more confident the more he did it. It was really nice to see because he was really agitated a lot of the time.”

Rebecca has now made her own artworks responding to the resident’s drawings.

“I kept some of his drawings … I didn’t copy them directly, but I responded to them. People at the nursing home were throwing them in the bin because they were not seeing them as art pieces, but I kept hold of them”.

Rebecca, sees her own drawings as “a type of remembrance. I wanted to give what he had produced some weight and importance.”

Rebecca says she has adopted some of the resident’s visual language, transforming his markings into more resolved pieces.

“Some pieces use geometric forms to create a structure to frame and suggest strength in his self-expression and creativity. Other works are more a soothing and nurturing reaction [to his art] with the use of watercolour and a neutral, pale palette to signify the compassion, love and tenderness that is evident amongst the staff in a care home environment.