AHA Connects Aug 15 – Arts Canopy

AHA! CONNECTS!  August 15, 2023

Welcome to AHA! Connects, celebrating and sharing AHA!’s programs and projects over the past 10 years. Today we celebrate Arts Canopy, a program designed to help people living with dementia rediscover their best selves, their creativity, and their current abilities and capacities, by using the arts to foster socialization, a sense of joy and other ways of remembering.


“What interests me is how people can be stimulated to remember things through any of the arts and what joy it gives them when they do remember.” Anne Simpson, poet and project creator

Proposed by Anne Simpson, then researched and designed by Anne and Liz Brennan, Arts Canopy was based on global best practices in both dementia care and in employing the arts in dementia care. Arts Canopy was coordinated by Mary Partridge and facilitated by several trained professional artists who created about 30, 10-week programs in music, visual arts, poetry, dance, storytelling and improvisation between 2015 and 2020. Arts Canopy was primarily offered in care homes in Northeastern NS, from New Glasgow to Inverness. It was funded by federal New Horizons for Seniors Grants, provincial Age-Friendly Communities Grants and the RK MacDonald Foundation.

What we discovered through Arts Canopy was truly remarkable. The arts open doors to long-forgotten memories, they bring joy to people’s lives, they restore self-esteem and they encourage people living with dementia to become more social. These impacts weren’t only seen during the programs but lasted well beyond the end of the programs.

Art produced through Arts Canopy was shared and celebrated through performances, art shows and the creation of booklets, both within the care communities and with the Antigonish community. In 2018, AHA! team members and artists presented the Arts Canopy program and its benefits at the provincial Alzheimer’s Society Conference. AHA! developed a training workshop for artists and caregivers and offered it from New Glasgow to Inverness in 2019. AHA! joined with StFX researchers to explore the impacts of Arts Canopy as a CLARI (Change Lab Action Research Initiative) funded project, Rooted in Research, https://www.artshealthantigonish.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Arts-canopy-rooted-in-research-final-report.pdf

AHA! is incredibly excited to be creating a book for caregivers reflecting our experience with the arts in dementia care, hoping to inspire all caregivers to foster artful interactions with people living with dementia. Stay tuned….


Book of Stories, compiled by facilitator Susan Walsh
I remember the men

I remember him down in the mines, deep down. 
No light all day, dark when they came up.
My dad worked in the mine.
I remember him coming home.
My dad worked on the Canso Causeway,
driving the big trucks with the gravel. 
It took time, long and slow.
My father worked the sugar camp,
Walking through the snow, tree to tree to tree.
Collecting the sap, keeping the fire going.
My father was a blacksmith. The ring of the anvil, 
the turn of the shoe,  
the heat of the fire.
My dad was a forest ranger. And my dad too.
He watched for fires.
I remember the men
ploughing fields, up and down,
in the spring. In the summer, cutting hay,		
piling it the wagon. I remember
the men cutting firewood,
chunking it, splitting it.
I remember the men.
		~Highland Crest Poetry Group, facilitated by Anne Simpson
RK MacDonald logo as a paper quilt, visual arts group
facilitated by Adam Tragakis

the heat, the heat, the heat           
in the mow, pitching back hay in the heat

and the dust coming out of the hay
so hot and sweating, crushing heat

at the end of the day 
you feel you’ve accomplished something

head to the beach, or the swimming hole when it’s over
I’d take the kids to the beach

you could sit on the beach
and wait for the pirate ship to come in

we had a swimming hole	
we’d build a dam, we silly kids

the water would seep and all of a sudden
it was gone

it wasn’t a good dam, but if someone fixed it up
hateful, wells going dry in summer, hauling water
in New France there was an awful shortage of water 	

most of the time

there’s nothing like an ice cream stand
sitting in the car waiting for the ice cream

it’s the people you meet at the stand

in the evening on the porch, listening to the owls			
hoot in the woods, my father was there, we had fiddles

summer feels like it goes by in a day
we didn’t know it then, but we had everything

~The Ladies of the Briar Patch, facilitated by Janette Fecteau

Poetry with Arts Canopy

As part of the offerings of Arts Canopy, we decided to try poetry with participants who had dementia. These poetry workshops ran during the fall of 2016 at Highland-Crest Home, Antigonish. In these workshops, we often worked on poems as a group. I would use a repetitive line or phrase to help in the shaping of each poem. We worked on group poems about women’s work, men’s work, what people did, and continue to do, in the country. We also wrote poems together about kids playing and memories about summertime. While I shaped them later, these group poems were based entirely on what people offered during the session. There was great enthusiasm for this, since everyone enjoyed remembering things as a group. We recited the poems together later.

Another highlight that came about through group work was a sound poem about a train, with pairs of participants making the different sounds a train makes (in some ways this resembled a choir doing soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They found this strange and comical, but also fun; it gave everyone a strong sense of rhythm and sound in poetry. We also did an exercise about inventing words and giving them definitions: this worked brilliantly. One woman came up with “brodidalamia,” meaning “when you walk backwards and fall.” She also came up with “jabanikonthurnov,” meaning “jumping into leaves” and “loodleladdle,” or an item to help hens lay eggs. About this exercise, Colleen said, “That was a whole lot of fun.”

On another occasion, everyone chose a pair of words from a metaphor basket (i.e. “joy” and “clouds”) to make poems. Doreen had an imaginative, lovely insight about a little girl who lived in the clouds. I asked her about it, and she said, “She’s happy in this place, because, right now, there are no problems for her.”

One of the best workshops was one in which I made a poetry board game that we all played together, stopping to help players do what was requested when they landed on a space (i.e. “write a poem of two lines” or “write a haiku”). One of the highlights of that workshop was Everett’s poem recipe, with these ingredients: “A summer day, a fishing line, a boy sitting by a stream.”

Poetry – writing itself – is tremendously demanding. Sometimes people attended the workshops, but they didn’t want to do anything; sometimes they didn’t know how to go about doing something and needed a lot of encouragement. When a session worked, though, it was wonderfully surprising and usually exceeded everyone’s expectations.

Anne Simpson

Visual Art with Arts Canopy:

Having the opportunity to facilitate an Arts Canopy Program was an incredibly eye-opening experience & greatly impacted my understanding of dementia. I came to realize that every diagnosis of dementia is as individual as the person living with it & that many of their memories, abilities and preferences are still very present & are best expressed through the arts. As we embrace people’s individuality & give focus to their unique skills and interests, they naturally flourish. Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel”.

It was a joy to witness participants develop friendships and bonds – you could feel the sense of caring and concern for one another develop as the program progressed. You could see a marked difference in participants’ mood, behaviour and sense of connection from the beginning to the end of each session, as well as from the beginning to the end of the program. Growth happens at every age and through every circumstance when people are offered favorable conditions for it.

We put together a special booklet that gathered the participants’ shared knowledge and creations that they kept in their lounge area & shared proudly with visiting friend and family. I’m so very grateful to every participant, volunteer, staff & AHA! for allowing me the honor to facilitate such a wonderful program.

Olivia Rossong