Number 50 in our countdown of '70 Ways Art Improves Our Health' highlights how art can help relieve the physical and emotional pain of terminal illness...

Art and creativity in palliative care can be powerful ways of addressing and communicating about the physical and emotional issues faced by patients and their loved ones.

Half a million of us die in England every year, and most deaths are preceded by a period of chronic illness, which means we will need care – whether delivered at home or in a care home, a hospital or a hospice. It’s important for our wellbeing that we’re able to discuss and process this natural part of our lives. But despite death happening to us all, there is still great taboo around talking about it.

A patient takes part in the Paintings in Hospitals printing workshop at Arthur Rank Hospice

Art can help in many ways. The most obvious is that creating art can offer another means of communication, exploring deep or hidden emotions, where words might fail. Viewing art with patients can be a sensitive catalyst for starting difficult discussions. And the creation of artworks can offer a lasting legacy for loved ones.

As said in the recent Creative Health report: “During terminal illness, arts participation provides an antidote to physical and psychological pain.”

Beginning in January last year, Paintings in Hospitals worked with Arthur Rank Hospice to provide new artworks and creative activities for patients and staff. Our first workshop was a co-curating workshop: designed to offer the opportunity to everyone in the hospice to have a say in what artworks would be installed in their space. We know this is particularly important for patients, who may feel that they have lost all control over their lives, to be given a chance to speak up, express their feelings, and regain some control. (It’s also a great opportunity for tea and biscuits while chatting!) The final artwork choice was made by popular vote.

The artworks from Paintings in Hospitals have been a huge success here in the In Patient Unit. As one relative said: ‘The paintings draw you in and, just for that moment, it provides a space to escape what is happening.’

Carly Love, IPU Matron at Arthur Rank Hospice

After the selected artworks were installed at the hospice, we returned to offer a hands-on creative activity. Paintings in Hospitals’ Loans Coordinator for East England, and practicing artist, Janet Bates collected some grasses and flowers from the hospice garden. She then used these as inspiration to help both patients and care staff create prints of their own design.

Staff and patients choosing new artworks during the Paintings in Hospitals co-curation activity.

Throughout history, it has been common for artists to become even more creatively active when they are closer to death. (See our Collection Highlight on Edward Dutkiewicz.) In fact, many of us (artists or not) with terminal illness are often drawn to creative expression as a way to communicate and vent our inner feelings – a vital step in coming to terms with dying.

Above all, art can help us frame the story of our lives and appreciate the beauty that still surrounds us. Art in palliative care can ensure that the end of our life is filled with colour, vibrancy and meaning.

  • If you'd like to find out more about dealing with death and dying, we recommend the Dying Matters website.
  • To find out more about Paintings in Hospitals art loans and activities, head here.

Follow our countdown on Twitter and Instagram...