In a quiet corner of the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, a small group of elderly dementia patients accompanied by relatives and caregivers gathered in December in front of a work by French avant-garde painter Pierre Bonnard.

Yoko Hayashi, representative director of Arts Alive, the organizer of the event, served as guide and moderator to help stimulate conversation among the group. “What do you see in this one?” she asked, pointing at the portrait of a woman.

“(She) looks like a ghost,” a 62-year-old male participant with dementia replied. Hayashi prods him further: “Would you like to go on a date with someone like her?”

The group included four dementia patients and seven relatives and caregivers. Sitting in folding chairs, they spent about 20 minutes at each painting.

Hayashi’s questions were aimed at stimulating the participants’ imagination, such as asking them how deep they think the pond in the painting is, or what kind of sound a musical instrument in the painting makes. She purposely left all explanation about the painter’s intentions and other information until the end.

“The answers are in each and every person’s own heart,” Hayashi said. “We are all equal in front of the paintings.”

The concept of art therapy tours, first developed by the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is to help improve dementia patients’ well-being by stimulating their thinking and positive feelings through appreciation and discussions of artworks in museums.

Arts Alive brought the approach to Japan in 2010. While the benefits have yet to be medically proven, Hayashi said that “in addition to expressing their emotions, listening to what other people say can also provide mental stimulation.”

Some family members and caregivers have said that sometimes the participants are more expressive when viewing art than in daily life.

Emi Masuko, who accompanied her 73-year-old husband, Kazuo, who has dementia, said: “His response changes at each painting. Just seeing that is already a great joy for me.

“For my husband who usually tends to be ignored even when he expresses his opinions, it is also reassuring that here he is never ever being negated,” the Yokohama resident said.

Another woman, participating in the art tour for the third time with her husband, who has Alzheimer’s, said: “I was suffering from depression as a result of taking care (of my husband), but this cheers me up. It has also made our conversation as husband and wife more lively.”

Similarly, a female caregiver accompanying a patient in the tour also lauded the approach, saying people with dementia can participate in art appreciation events without hurting their pride.

For patients who are unable to make it all the way to a museum, plans for outreach programs to be held in nursing homes and other facilities in the near future are in the making. Minato Ward in Tokyo, for example, is considering adopting this approach at existing weekly cafe-style events it hosts for residents with dementia and their family members, with expectations that the art therapy will also contribute to preventive care.

Besides museum tours, other therapy methods use art to provide mental stimulation for dementia patients, such as “clinical art.” In this approach, people with dementia are shown objects such as fruit and are free to create drawings or sculpted artworks based on what they see or touch.

Aya no Sato, a nonprofit group home and day care facility for dementia patients in Kumamoto, is one such facility that has integrated clinical art and art appreciation therapy in its dementia care, such as through creative art and art-viewing programs.

“The fact that there are still opportunities even for those with dementia to learn new things brings hope to the patients themselves as well as to their family members,” said Nao Okamoto, vice representative at Aya no Sato.

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