Rome project offers hope to dementia sufferers

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Carla Gunnella dances with a dementia sufferer at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art. Photo: Rosie Scammell/The Local
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Italy's ageing population has led to an increase in the number of dementia sufferers, in turn prompting new ideas to help people cope. The Local visited a gallery in Rome to find out how art can help people hold onto their memories.

Music interrupts the usual hush of Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, one winter’s afternoon, as laughing couples dance around colourful sculptures.

The dancers - dementia sufferers - may soon forget the moment. But gallery staff, doctors and the patients’ families are convinced that such experiences can help them cope with their illness.

The project, called La memoria del bello (the memory of the beautiful), was launched by the gallery three years ago, the first of its kind in Italy, with help from New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

Groups of up to six dementia sufferers, plus their carers, are taken on weekly tours of the gallery, where they interact with the art works in an effort to trigger their personal memories.

When The Local went along to the gallery, the group was picking out their favourites from a collection of sculpted dresses, recalling past courtships, ball gowns and dances.

The method of asking the participants questions is the same employed with groups of children, but the responses are quite different, Carla Gunnella, who works at the gallery, tells The Local.

Gloria Borrini, whose father Giovanni has suffered from Alzheimer's disease for six years, says after just three visits the project is having an impact.

“It’s positive because it helps with his emotions and perceptions,” she says.

“In some moments, even three days after a visit, I’ve asked him about the gallery and he’s said things about it, so it definitely stays with him,” Borrini adds.

Half a million people in Italy suffer from Alzheimer’s, one of the most common types of dementia, and with the country’s ageing population the number is set to rise.

In 2011, Italy’s national statistics agency (Istat) said that the majority of sufferers, like Giovanni, live with family.

While Borrini says there are centres set up by the government to offer support, her father “relies completely on’s not easy”.

Susanne Meurer, an assistant at the gallery, says the project provides vital breathing space for carers. “For caregivers it’s an important moment, because in their daily lives it’s very difficult for them. It’s a moment in which they can do something different."

'Art works as an emotional stimulus'

While the light-hearted atmosphere at the gallery helps lift participants’ moods, Doctor Massimo Marianetti says the project also has proven health benefits.

“[Dementia sufferers] enter into harmony with the painting or whatever the artist wants to communicate, and they relate it to events in their lives. It’s an emotional stimulus,” he says as he accompanies patients at the gallery.

“It’s important to use instruments that stimulate positive emotions, slowing down the illness with compassion. The gallery is the ideal place to do this." After a number of visits, his patients remember being at the gallery and the things they have seen there.

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The visits are no more than a week apart for any group, to help foster these memories, explains Gunnella.

Despite being hailed as a great success by participants and gallery staff alike, Gunnella and Meurer say there is no funding for the project.

“Internally the gallery is practically without money. We have got a little bit of financing from the culture ministry, with which we bought the seats the patients sit on,” says Meurer, who along with Gunnella makes time in her working day to give the tours.

They are, however, determined to continue the project, says Meurer: “It’s important for them,  it's [an opportunity] to be close to other people. “Because it’s hugely sad to see a person who’s lost their memory.” 

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