One Sunday in the Omotesando district of Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, Katsunobu Machida, a 66-year-old dementia patient, was looking at a painting with his wife.

“It looks like a midday moon,” said Machida, referring to the painting.

The scene seems like a typical weekend for a retired couple. But Machida was, in fact, undergoing art therapy for dementia patients. Machida, who was diagnosed with dementia in 2010, occasionally participates in art therapy, where dementia patients like him can freely express their views on paintings and other artworks together with others. In the sessions, which are open to those with and without dementia, a certified “art conductor” facilitates a 20-minute discussion among the participants.

“My husband gets really expressive during the discussion,” said Machida’s wife, Naoko, who participated in the therapy with him. “I’m always surprised by his imaginary and detailed analysis of paintings since I’ve never seen him talking that much in daily life.”

Yoko Hayashi, a representative of Arts Alive, the organization that hosted the event, said, “While dementia patients struggle with memorization and recognition, they are highly sensitive and rich in emotions.”

“As there isn’t right or wrong when observing artworks, they can say whatever they feel about the paintings without being afraid of making mistakes,” she said.

Hayashi started the program in 2011 after she participated in an art therapy tour for people with dementia at the Museum of Modern Arts in New York (MoMA).

“The first time I saw dementia patients discussing paintings with enthusiasm, I felt a sensation running through my spine,” said Hayashi. “That was the moment I decided to introduce (art therapy) in Japan.”

Numerous museums in over 10 countries have introduced the program, which MoMA started in 2006. About 100,000 people including dementia patients have participated so far.

“People with dementia tend to sever their relationships with others, feeling ashamed,” Hayashi said. “This program provides an opportunity for those who shut themselves off from society to interact with others.”

According to a survey released by the health ministry in 2012 there are an estimated 4.62 million people with dementia, accounting for 15 percent of people aged 65 or older in Japan. The ministry estimates about 7 million people, or 1 in 5 Japanese, will have dementia by 2025. The health ministry is aiming to introduce a care system by 2025 that enables elderly dementia patients to live on their own with the support of their communities. As the number of dementia patients surges Hayashi has been training those interested to become what she refers to as art conductors, who can facilitate dialogue among participants with dementia.

“The demand for art therapy has been increasing, but the number of (qualified) art conductors is not catching up with that pace,” said Hayashi.

Since 2012, Hayashi has held lectures for those who want to be art conductors. They learn ways to facilitate discussion among people with dementia as well as basic knowledge about dementia and the arts. It takes a minimum of three months to become certified as an art conductor, and so far there are 30 certified art conductors holding sessions mainly in the Kanto region.

In Tokyo art therapy is currently held at the National Museum of Western Arts in Taito Ward once a month, as well as in several nursing homes once a week. Junko Sakuma, a 55-year-old financial worker who takes part in the training sessions, decided to be an art conductor when Hayashi’s comment that dementia patients live in the moment triggered her memory of an experience taking care of her father who suffered from dementia and passed away fifteen years ago. “I often compared him to the time when he was healthy, and always focused on things he couldn’t do rather than what he could do,” said Sakuma. “It is also my biggest regret that I didn’t provide him with mental care.”

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