Art Therapy, Visual Sociology and Dementia Awareness

As part of Dementia Awareness week in Australia, the photography of sociologist Professor Cathy Greenblat (seen below) will continue to travel around Australia. Today’s post gives some background on dementia research. I give an overview of the sociological contributions to art therapy. I pay special focus to art community programs that are being used to treat dementia. I discuss Greenblat’s work as a form of applied sociology and as an example of how visual sociology can be used to reach new audiences outside academia.

What is Dementia?

Dementia is not one disease. It is a collection of symptoms that stop the brain from carrying out daily functions. Common forms of dementia include Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s Disease. In the video further below, Alzheimer’s Australia reports that 269,000 Australians have dementia. This means that 214 people are diagnosed with a brain disorder every day. A further 1.2 million Australians care for someone with dementia.

There is no cure for dementia.  It is a terminal condition. Drugs can be used to manage dementia, but diet alternatives are also being scientifically trialled. This includes Folate and Vitamin B12 supplements, and a Vitamin E rich diet. Daily moderate exercise (such as 30 minutes walking) and brain training can alleviate further memory loss and help patients better manage their disease  This includes learning a new language, which can stave off the onslaught of Alzeheimer’s, as well as music and art therapy (see also here). 

Up to half of all cases of Alzheimer’s cases are preventable through a low cholesterol, high phytonutrient diet. Phynutrients are founds in plants and fruit. Promising results for alleviating the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are also found in apple juice and ginger root.

Meat eaters (including those who eat chicken & fish) are three times at risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A dairy-free diet has been shown to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A vegetarian diet high in Omega 3, antioxidants & Vitamin E can also aid brain health. This includes nuts, seeds, wholegrain, blueberries, and avocado (for further information, see here).

Art Therapy for Dementia

This week, Alzheimer’s Australia is hosting a series of public lectures around the country. They have great resources on how to help families living with dementia on their website. They also focus on helping Indigenous Australians, linguistically & culturally diverse groups, and LGBTQI people.

The connection between art and mental health are clear in the Dementia Awareness Week activities in Australia, with various galleries and art community groups supporting different events. For example, the Arts Health Institute is hosting activities at the Newcastle Museum and Art Gallery. The National Gallery of Victoria is hosting access tours for Art and Memory. Alzheimer’s Australia has been touring sociologist Cathy Greenblat’s photographic exhibition Love, Loss and Laughter: Seeing Dementia Differently. This work includes photographs of dementia patients, their carers and families. It also incorporates photos documenting how art and music therapy is used in dementia treatment.

Art therapy is a multidisciplinary field with demonstrated applied health outcomes. Sociologist Phyllis Braudy Harris shows that medical treatments of dementia focus on physical deterioration. This framework of loss adversely affects dementia patients, who say they need help living with their disease. Sociology can address this by recognising and valuing the subjective experiences of people living with dementia. Harris writes:

The person’s experience with dementia is, by its very nature, an ever-changing, complex, confusing, all-encompassing, and life-altering experience that affects self-identity, social relationships, physical, cognitive, and mental functioning, communication, spirituality, issues of autonomy, and above all his or her feeling of being accepted as fully human.

Harris notes that dementia sufferers have much to give through their embodied knowledge of this disease as well as through helping others as volunteers or through other contributions.

Sociological studies have shown art therapy to have positive mental health benefits  among vulnerable groups. Art, drama, dance and music help community support groups where members do not find talking therapy useful or where talking is otherwise difficult.

A Visual Sociology of Dementia

Photo by Cathy Greenblat. Via Alzheimer's Australia
Photo by Cathy Greenblat. Via Alzheimer’s Australia

Greenblat has a personal connection to dementia. Both her maternal grandparents and her mother had  Alzheimer’s disease. Greeblat was an Artist in Residence at the university hospital network in Nice, France. She was a Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University for over 35 years and she’s spent the past ten years since her retirement as a photographer. She has exhibited various photographic works on dementia and aging, and published books on her photography.

The collection currently touring Australia includes over 85 photos taken in the USA, France, India, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Canada, and Monaco. Greenblat’s aim is to help other people understand the progression of dementia. She also seeks to reflect on the diverse experiences of people who live with this condition. Alzheimer’s Australia writes:

The exhibition offers a new vision of dementia and care, challenging the view that people with age-related cognitive conditions are “lost”, “empty shells”, “no longer here”. By illustrating the stories of those who are living with dementia through images, the exhibition conveys that life goes on after a diagnosis of dementia and that people with dementia continue to have needs around social interaction and engagement in much the same way as anyone else.

Greenblat’s photography can simultaneously be seen as a form of visual sociology and as an applied sociological practice. Later, I will write more comprehensively on how applied sociologists use visual sociology, but in brief, this term describes visual representation of sociological data or knowledge. Visual sociology is not about the analysis of media, art or other images. That is, critiquing a photograph or video is not an act of visual sociology.

Visual sociology is both a set of theories and methodologies used to convey sociological ideas. This means that a sociologist must produce visuals (videos, pictures and so on) as part of their sociological critique, evaluation or analysis of social phenomena. Visual sociology must therefore deliver a non-text-based representation of a social problem as its main product or research outcome.

A sociologist’s training, often discussed as our sociological imagination, provides us a lens through which to view the world. What we see is not what other people see. As Peter Berger wrote, a sociologist writes that “the first wisdom of sociology” is that “things are not what they seem.” Visual sociology is about applying the sociological gaze when recording social phenomena. Greenblat’s  photographs are an example of this visual sociology.

Sociology at Work’s new Instagram @SociologyAtWork is another example of visual sociology, as is our Applied Sociology video and playlist, and our upcoming YouTube series (more on this later!).

Alternatively, visual sociology involves a sociologist devising a study or program where their clients or participants produce visuals as part of the research or program outcome. Art therapy is an example of visual sociology (where a sociologist has devised a health program). In this case, applied sociology has much to contribute to community and public health.

They don't need to tell me I'm dying with Alzheimer's disease... what you need to do - is help me figure out how to live with it. - Mr Spencer, 56 year old participant in Phyllis Braudy Harris sociology study
They don’t need to tell me I’m dying with Alzheimer’s disease… what you need to do – is help me figure out how to live with it.

– Mr Spencer, 56 year old participant in Phyllis Braudy Harris sociology study

Applied Sociology of Dementia

Issues of gender, race, sexuality and age are important in an applied health context. This is not just about identifying issues, but addressing them in a practical way that helps people carry out their daily work more productively. This work must maximise health benefits for patients, families, workers and stakeholders.

In the case of art therapy programs, 70% to 95% of art therapists in different parts of the world are white women and largely presumed by their clients to be heterosexual. This makes art therapy a culturally loaded space, the same as any other social field. Research shows that a white woman having control over a Black man’s body is going to have different historical and cultural ramifications for the patient and their therapist. Similarly, having a younger homosexual person teaching art to older dementia patients presents other issues that must be actively managed (see the previous link for empirical examples).

At different stages of illness, dementia patients will have times of high lucidity. At other times, loss of cognitive, speech and physical abilities may lead to confusion or otherwise complicate communication. This does not necessarily mean that a sufferer has completely let go of their personal preferences, biases and ideas of social comfort.

Having a sociologist devise or oversee an art therapy program for dementia is invaluable. Applied sociologists are especially receptive to the intersections of power, life experience and identities. An applied sociologist’s job is to make art therapy work successfully for clients and their carers, without ignoring the reality of social relationships.

Applied sociologists can help navigate socio-cultural issues by providing art therapy that addresses social inequalities and divisions. Applied sociologists can also help train healthcare professionals and support families to better connect with dementia sufferers through art-centred healing.

Greenblat’s exhibition is currently in Adelaide. It then travels to Brisbane and Sydney. See more of Greenblat’s work in her book and listen to her on this BBC interview. You can also watch Cathy discuss her work in the video below, a wonderful new short documentary by Corinne Maunder on dementia. Other examples of Greenblat’s photography can be seen on her Love, Loss & Laughter website, and for Cathy’s other work, visit her personal site.

Learn more on Dementia Awareness

Alzheimer’s Australia – 2011 Dementia Facts Australia


Love, Loss & Laughter – Living with Dementia

7 Comments on “Art Therapy, Visual Sociology and Dementia Awareness

  1. Of course I am biased but I think you did a great job on this post!!! It is clear, interesting, informative. The exhibit has been in several countries in Europe, and in India, Canada and the USA. But Alzheimer’s Australia has done an extraordinary job of using it to improve awareness and reduce stigma. An Australian filmmaker, Corinne Maunder at Fire Films has made a terrific film about this AA program. It will be released on Sept 21 — World Alzheimer’s Day — and like this excellent piece it will enlighten viewers about how much can be done by all is now to make a more dementia friendly world. Get the link from Alzheimer’s Australia or ADI’s web site on the 21st.

    I’m honored and I thank you Dr Zeballos and I hope we can meet when I return in March 2014 to Australia.


    • Dear Dr Greenblat,
      Thank you for your feedback! I’m so pleased you liked the post. Thanks for telling us about Corinne Maunder’s film. I will be sure to share the link through our networks after the 21st of September.

      I’d love to meet you after your return to Oz in March 2014. Please stay in touch. I think you’re doing an amazing job in Alzheimer’s advocacy. I’d love for even more sociologists to learn about your work. It’s important for students and applied researchers to see people like you making a difference both inside and outside of a classroom! Best wishes,



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  3. As an applied sociologist working in research and policy at Alzheimer’s Australia NSW, I thank you for this post!! And I’m very glad to have found Sociology at Work. Thanks Zuleyka.


    • Wow Kylie, what an awesome job you have! Thanks for your kind words. I think your organisation does fantastic and vital work. Please get in touch if you wouldn’t mind being interviewed about your work for our YouTube series. Otherwise if you’d prefer we can do a text feature about how you use sociology on our blog. Stay in touch either way and best wishes for the new year!


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