Debbie Brittain has been the driving force behind QAGOMA – Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art – leading the way as it joins the ranks of organisations that have become members of the global Dementia Friendly Community.

I asked Deb how QAGOMA had become involved, what did their Dementia Friendly Action Plan look like and what did it mean for QAGOMA and its Staff.

As it turns out, dementia-friendly behaviour is not new at QAGOMA – since 2014 they have hosted a regular Art and Dementia Program.

Art and Dementia has grown since that time, and now provides programs for people living with dementia within three different streams:

  • for community-dwelling people living at home
  • for residential aged care
  • for espite and community organisations

Deb works in the Education team at QAGOMA, and is a champion for life-long learning and access for all abilities, to the State’s Art Collection. 

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In 2018 with sponsorship from two new and deeply committed sponsors – 2020 Optical and the Morgans Foundation – Deb was able to bring the program and awareness of dementia, into more prominence.

By embedding additional grass-roots support for people living with dementia into the Art and Dementia program format, participants are now more able to access the program.

As Deb explains: “If you make it accessible for people with dementia, then you make it accessible for everyone.”

Image at left: Tactile and sensory objects support participants to engage with an artwork narrative

She went on to say: “We identified a number of key areas that could be improved within the program, and ultimately these have all been woven into our Dementia Friendly Communities Action Plan – transport support, easier parking, accessible seating, dementia-friendly environment, and staff education.” 

“Just as an example, with parking almost impossible to get in the CBD, we can book a car park space at the gallery and/or book a return taxi on behalf of the participant and carer. This is a simple but important example of the sorts of things that we have been able to implement to increase social participation, and to support visitors with dementia to remain active members of the Brisbane community.”

“The results were astounding with people engaging more effectively and staying in the program for longer – one man has been coming regularly for almost 4 years, and importantly too, carers also benefit from therapeutic engagement in the beautiful gallery aesthetics.”

As a result of these initial endeavours to broaden access for people with dementia, QAGOMA has broadened its program format to regularly host younger onset dementia drug trial patients from The Prince Charles Hospital Internal Medicine and Dementia Research Unit .

Deb explains: “I am frequently reviewing how we can improve the experience of our visitors living with dementia, but it is vital to involve people with lived experience – people living with dementia and their families and carers – so that they can provide their viewpoint .”

Enter dementia advocates John Quinn and Glenys Petrie who came to speak to the Staff as volunteers of the Dementia Awareness Advocacy Team.

John lives with younger onset dementia, and Glenys has an acquired brain injury – together they make a formidable team who work tirelessly across all areas to further the conversation and awareness of dementia – here in Australia and internationally.

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Deb went on: “So QAGOMA staff were introduced to ways they could become more dementia-aware by increasing their knowledge about dementia. The dementia advocacy team spoke with our frontline people including the Gallery Store staff, Café staff, Floor staff, Security and others.

“It is very much now an holistic approach, and the brilliant thing is that having better awareness has empowered staff to be dementia-friendly here at work and outside work in everyday settings.”

When COVID hit, the QAGOMA team launched Dementia Australia’s Dementia Friend online training within the broader staff training catalogue, to reach more staff who were undertaking online learning during gallery closure.

She approached the Dementia-Friendly Communities team at Dementia Australia, the national peak body, and asked for help, which they were happy to provide.

Deb said: “Dementia Australia has the dementia friend training modules available online, and our Staff were able to sign up voluntarily, so it was great to see so many people take up the opportunity to become a dementia friend.”

In the end though, she said that the whole exercise has been incredibly engaging for staff who, as a result of that training now feel empowered to help people living with the condition, and their carers – whether that be a family member, friend or neighbour.

I asked what sorts of changes does QAGOMA need to make in order to become a Dementia Friendly Organisation.

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“Lots of the changes are relatively simple things, for example having accessible chairs with armrests as leverage points to enable people to move independently from a standing position to being seated” She said.

“Historically here at the Gallery, what you will see most commonly, are wheelchairs being made available for people with mobility problems.

Chairs with armrests are available during the program, which is incredibly affirming because participants with visuo-spatial deficits, or motor impairment can move with self-determination, which supports their sense of identity, function and confidence.

So what does QAGOMA’s DFO Action Plan look like?

“Again the Plan comes from a grass-roots perspective, and always, always, always involving people with the lived experience.” Deb said.

“In particular we seek feedback from visitors who attend our gallery program and I work hard to take this feedback into consideration.

I’d like to share a story with you. We thought we had the parking issue covered until a visitor for whom we had reserved a parking space was unable to navigate the car park entry point. He knew about the parking space, but when he got to the gate, he couldn’t negotiate the buttons on the machine to gain entry and ended up looking for a carpark elsewhere.

This experience caused him some anxiety, however he managed to make it to the program, although late.

Importantly, as a result of him sharing his story, there is now much better signage at the car park entry point, and that’s better for everyone who uses the carpark.

I think one would say that Deb Brittain is a champion of dementia at QAGOMA, and as a result, Staff and visitors to the gallery are seeing a whole range of things being put into place to destigmatise dementia and to raise awareness in a very public environment.

She is a key driver in accommodating Visitors who live with dementia, and in raising awareness of this condition.

Everyone has the right to feel safe and to continue to participate in everyday experiences, such as visiting an art gallery.

As a result of her commitment, she and her team are making a visit to the Gallery achievable for people who live with dementia, and this is one of the cornerstones of the Dementia Friendly Communities program:

To make access to the things that we do in “normal” everyday life easy and accessible for people living with dementia.

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If you’re thinking about bringing your organisation into this growing wave of support across Australia and the world, Deb’s recommendation for a larger organisation is to work from the bottom up.

She told me that certainly at QAGOMA, she and her colleagues have built awareness from the bottom up, and this is also the case in other large organisations like the University of Queensland and now Brisbane City Council – both of whom are committed to the Dementia Friendly Communities initiative.

For smaller organisations, working from the top down is probably the way to go.

And what are the benefits for QAGOMA?

“Ultimately, apart from the direct outcomes for QAGOMA in relation to the experience of our Visitors and their ability to easily access our facility and programs, the feedback from our Staff in relation to their Dementia Friends training categorically says they have learned that dementia is EVERYBODY’s business.”

“They feel more able to assist people and are less judgemental, and that will have a ripple effect far into the wider community where 70% of people who have dementia live – contrary to the commonly held belief that the majority of people with dementia are in residential care.”

Deb’s last words: “We are very proud to be the first of what I hope will be a long line of organisations to become involved, so let’s get everyone on board and make it happen!”

In my view, Deb Brittain is a unique resource for QAGOMA and indeed, she has become a unique resource for our city, our state and our country as we move towards a Dementia Friendly Brisbane in the lead up to the 2032 Olympics.

YES, let’s get everyone on board!!!

If you are interested in the Dementia Friendly Communities program for your organisation, you can find out more on the website

In Queensland you can contact Marie-Louise Bone on 07 3014-6630, and queries for elsewhere can be sent from the contact page on the website above.

If you’d like to find out more about QAGOMA’s Art and Dementia Program visit