Exploring the relationship between geriatric patients and their carers through portraiture: giving, receiving, observing & witnessing care (GROWing Care)
KeywordsDementia Portraiture Art Aging Caregiving
The process of creating a portrait relies on a series of intimate interactions. Portraits, even those that depict a single individual, are a visual testament to a relationship. Portrait sitters are required to engage with artists in the creation of their personal visual narrative. As viewers of a portrait, we are invited to actively participate in other’s stories, to observe, to question, even stare. This process is integral to the portraits evolving meaning. Giving, receiving, observing & witnessing care (GROWing Care), the case study presented in this manuscript, draws on these multiple exchanges to explore the experience of dementia and portraiture among older adults and their partners in care as they work with artist/researcher Mark Gilbert, and geriatrician, Kenneth Rockwood.
Previous work with patients and caregivers found that the experience of portraiture in a clinical setting engaged participants in building trusting relationships, embracing uncertainties, exchanging stories, reflecting on experiences and developing a sense of empowerment . In 1998, Rockwood founded the artist-in-residence program at Veterans Memorial Hospital in Halifax. He invited local artists to interpret visually how patients experience living with dementia and how dementia is treated. Their artworks, now exhibited on the walls of the hospital’s Memory Clinic, contribute to the clinical program by enhancing the therapeutic ambiance, diminishing the anxiety of those visiting the clinic and enabling greater insight into the patient experience .
People with dementia and their carer(s) remember and describe “while engaged in social interactions” . Social interactions between Rockwood, Mark, Emily and Dawson produced data that demonstrates that through the process of portraiture, sitters can observe and get to know not only themselves but also the artist and their physician. Mark told Emily and Dawson, “As I’m drawing, I’m also getting to know you a little bit better.” Dawson described the importance of such relationship building when in describing Rockwood, he said, “because of the patients he’s dealing with, it requires time to understand what’s going on inside the mind. Whereas… the surgeon, I mean he’s a mechanic….He’s done some pretty interesting things to my body. But he’s a mechanic.” A mechanical artist, like a surgeon, may not get to know subjects on a personal level. This depth of familiarity echos Gilbert’s prior relationships with sitters and mirrors the relationships that develop between patients and caregivers . As Rockwood said, working in medicine is “paying attention.” He explained, “my job is to listen to symptoms.” At a sitting with Emily and Dawson, Rockwood said, “here, everyone gets a vote.” Emily and Dawson actively contributed to their portraits, expressing themselves, reflecting, contemplating and telling their own story. Gilbert, listened, absorbed what he heard, saw and felt to help guide the marks he made on the paper.
GROWing Care’s interdisciplinary analysis team continues to consider how the portrait making process and the resultant images can contribute to our understanding of the relationships among carers and older adults living with dementia. We hope the findings of the resultant exhibition of the study portraits will not just inform, but also inspire us to reconsider the relationship between those who give and receive and observe and witness care. We believe attention to these relationships can help reframe our perspective of the lives of older adults and people living with dementia in ways that can challenge and stimulate and nurture fresh thinking, dialogue and connections.
The study was funded with the assistance of Fountain Family Innovation Fund (QEII Health Sciences Centre Foundation).
Compliance with ethical standards
Conflict of interest
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors. All aspects of the study were approved by Research Ethics Board (REB) at Nova Scotia Health Authority.
Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study. Additional informed consent was obtained from all individual participants for whom identifying information is included in this article.
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