Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled art centres play a significant role in nurturing the health and wellbeing of older people and people living with dementia in remote communities across Australia, new research shows.
The research, launched last week as part of the Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair, supports calls from art centres for greater resourcing and formal recognition of their role in keeping older people and people living with dementia strong and connected.
“Our study is the first to share how art centres play a wide ranging and vital role in supporting older people – many of whom are Elders within their communities,” NARI Research Fellow, Paulene Mackell, says.
“Art centres facilitate connection to Country, and this, along with being with younger people, was identified as a priority by the older artists.
“We also learnt that many centres are delivering direct care for older artists including helping them with errands, prompting them to take their medication, providing meals and mobility assistance, and supporting them to access and navigate services.”
There are approximately 90 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community controlled art centres across Australia, with the majority in geographically remote locations.
“Through this project, we heard diverse examples of how art centres provide cultural, spiritual, physical, social, and emotional care,” Mackell says.
“We also saw innovative examples of collaborations with aged care and health providers.
“Our research clearly shows art centres are important and safe places for older artists to fulfil their roles as Elders, and to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and culture to younger generations within their communities.”
The research, conducted between 2018 and 2021, was funded by an Australian Government Department of Health’s Dementia and Aged Care Innovation Grant.
It was led by the National Ageing Research Institute (NARI) in partnership with three Aboriginal community controlled art centres: Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency in Fitzroy Crossing, Western Australia; Ikuntji Artists in Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory; and Tjanpi Desert Weavers of the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Women’s Council (Aboriginal Corporation), working across the tri-state border region of Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia.
Annette Lormada, from the Mangkaja Arts Resource Agency, says community controlled art centres are important not only for older people now, but also for the younger ones coming behind.
“It’s good for everybody … to come in [to Mangkaja], young to old, to be together here,” she says.
Roseranna Larry, at Ikuntji Artists, says she too is happy.
“Making me think back, I used to listen to my father’s aunties singing.
“That’s why I’m really interested with this..it’s our law. That’s why I am coming to the art centre.”
Margaret Smith, at Tjanpi Desert Weavers, says she fell in love with making Tjanpi, so she kept doing it.
“It sort of brought peace to my life, you know – peace and harmony, and changed my lifestyle round.”
Mackell says their research emphasises that Elders are central to their art centres.
As artists, directors and staff, Elders keep culture, Country, language, and kin strong. This translates into safe spaces for all.
“The centres seem to foster a real sense of belonging,” she says.
“Intergenerational teaching and learning can happen organically; staff are trusted and called on to provide or help access care; and often the centres will collaborate with local aged care providers to keep an older artist well.
“Indeed, partnerships between aged care providers and art centres provide the opportunity for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and Elders to fulfil their roles and responsibilities as the knowledge keepers and ‘super stars’ in their art centre,” Mackell says.
She says the research is particularly timely given the recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, which recommends maximising opportunities for older Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians to remain on, and maintain a connection with Country and communities, and aged care providers to partner with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander controlled organisations to deliver appropriate care.
Additionally, the research aligns with the calls of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health experts for system reform to address inequities in the health and aged care systems, and for a fundamental shift from biomedical and siloed models of care to ones that centralise culture, intergenerational connection, and the cultural determinants of health.
Mackell says creative approaches are required, that resource art centres appropriately so they can continue to nurture the health and wellbeing of older and younger people and people living with dementia in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across Australia.
“Art centres are grounded in their communities, and we need to listen, value, and learn from their expertise,” she says.
NARI also partnered with two aged care providers and two universities for the project: Kimberley Aged and Community Services; Tjungu Aged and Disability Team, NPY Women’s Council; The University of Western Australia; and Flinders University.
Dr Maree Meredith, deputy director of the Poche Centre for Indigenous Health at Flinders University, says art centres are a ‘good place’ – where people come to be happy.
“It’s a place where people feel safe, it’s a very special model as it has the cultural, the social, as well as the economic, that come together in a holistic way,” she says.
Roslyn Malay, from the University of Western Australia, says it is clear to see the difference it makes to attendees when they come to the Mangkaja art resource centre.
“It’s something that’s part of them,” she says.
“They come to share their stories, tell their histories, share their culture, and language, to the younger generations – which is brilliant.
“Where else could you get something like this in a cultural way?”