The Practical Academic

By Kevin McKay

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When Dalia Gottlieb-Tanaka turned 50, her husband and family threw a surprise birthday party and managed to catch her off guard. What surprised her even more, however, were the two announcements she made at that same party with no preparation. “When I walked in and saw all the people I thought they were looking at someone behind me, but when I turned around no one was there,” she says. “This was a real surprise because usually I am the one organizing things like this. Everyone wanted me to say something and what I said became the pivotal moment of my life. I told everyone that I was going back to school and, within five years, I would be returning home to Israel.”

While she and her architect husband, Mineo Tanaka, did not move back to Israel, they did buy an apartment there so they have a place to stay when they visit.

In 1980, Dalia earned her master’s degree in architecture from UBC and now, after raising her two daughters, she found herself returning to the Point Grey campus. “I got my PhD through the Interdisciplinary Studies Program and did it in record time,” she says.

Returning to school as a mature student presented some challenges. While she did not care for the fact she was older than some of her professors, she enjoyed the freedom she had gained by no longer needing constant approval.

“In some ways, it became an ordeal because of the friction caused by pitting the practical world against the theoretical one,” she says. “My professors wanted me to keep my approach purely theoretical, but I wanted to bring it into the practical world. In the end, I won for myself and for people with dementia.”

Dalia first became interested in people with dementia some years earlier when she was asked to do a favour for a friend. An elderly woman living in a care facility needed stimulus and individual attention. Her family was too busy to give their mother enough quality time, so they were exploring options. “They asked me if I could do it,” says Dalia. “I had never done anything like that and had no experience with people with dementia. I was worried, but when I went in and met her and spoke with her, I just fell in love with her. I was supposed to be entertaining her, but she wound up entertaining me. It was a wonderful experience.”

Wanting to understand what her new friend was going through, Dalia became quickly frustrated by the severe lack of reading material and resources available on the use of creative arts in dementia care.

“I was taken aback by the fact there was such a gap in understanding. Even though the baby-boomer masses are growing older, our society is not ready to receive them. But they are coming and so is their potential memory impairment.”

While she worked towards her doctorate, Dalia was inspired by her elderly friend and concentrated on finding creative activities appropriate for people with dementia. This was groundbreaking work. In the late '90s, only a handful of researchers were exploring the creative arts and how important they are to the quality of life of people with dementia. Dalia was one of them.

She credits former art teacher, Sylvia Sinclair, as her second inspiration. Over a period of several years, Dalia filmed Sylvia and documented the slow deterioration of her cognitive abilities. The National Film Board of Canada funded the film. Sylvia exhibited a wonderful sense of humour, which is still a great lesson: everyone needs to keep their own sense of humour and learn to appreciate it in those with dementia.

“Wit and humour are very important tools for communication,” says Dalia. “While the brain deteriorates gradually, seniors with dementia still have life experiences that colour their life stories and they should not be treated as children. I discovered that if you give them appropriate creative activities, their reactions are fantastic. They live in a different world with different understandings. We need to meet them in their world. I think when people develop symptoms of dementia, they are entering a new phase in their development. We make adjustments when our children become teens, so why can’t we do the same when others get dementia?”

People with dementia require specialized care and programs. Unfortunately, when money is tight and budget cuts must be made, recreation programs and the creative arts are often the first to go. Dalia thinks it is sad that creative arts programs are considered expendable and often unappreciated by those within the field of dementia care.

“We knew the work we were doing was important, but we had to justify what we were doing all the time,” she says. “My colleagues were yearning for recognition and to be accepted as part of the core health team but that rarely happened.”

Recognizing the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to the creative arts in dementia care and borrowing knowledge from the various types and methods of art therapy, Dalia knew she must act to bring them all together without worrying about how they fit in. This led to her establishing the Society for the Arts in Dementia Care, a registered, non-profit society. Through the society, Dalia and her Executive Board of devoted individuals have organized conferences and workshops, put out regular newsletters, presented at conferences, established ties with other like-minded groups around the world, and raised awareness about the value and significance of the creative arts in dementia care.

One of the projects Dalia is working on with her colleagues, Dr. Peter Graf and Hilary Lee, is the Creative Expression Abilities Assessment tool that measures creative expression abilities of people with dementia and which can lead to planning appropriate activities for each individual.

“This can help facilitators recognize whether or not they are doing the right thing with each person,” she says.

Despite being the recipient of multiple honours and awards, Dalia remains grounded and focused on those with dementia. She says, “The most important thing is always the clients. If we can put aside the politics, squabbling and jealousy, then I am achieving my target. My mission in life is to bring the academic and the practical together for the benefit of our clients.”


The fifth annual conference sponsored by the Society takes place from September 30 to October 2 in Penticton, B.C. For more information, visit



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