Dementia is an “umbrella term” describing a set of symptoms including memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. It is often the result of brain damage caused by certain diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s dementia is the most common type of dementia, and is a progressive disease which attacks the brain, reducing its size to that of an orange. Whilst crosswords, quizzes and brain games are all useful stimulants, and fun for dementia sufferers to undertake, the arts has a unique place in improving the quality of life for those living with this terrible disease.
Most of my examples in this article stem from my volunteering and holiday job in a care home. Whilst many dementia sufferers do still live in their own homes, cared for by relatives, I can only comment on this delicate subject from my own experiences of arts within the care home environment.
Many care homes employ a music therapist whose role is to play and sing songs (usually from the war, or the home’s residents’ youths), and encourage the residents to join in. They are provided with percussion instruments, and many spend a happy afternoon singing and playing along to their favourite songs, stimulating memories of days gone by, and creating a happy atmosphere all around. As babies benefit from lullabies sung by their mothers, and teenagers benefit from dancing to tunes in nightclubs, dementia sufferers benefit from the soothing melodies of old favourites (such as ‘We’ll Meet Again’), or the light-hearted, upbeat tune of ‘Lambeth Walk’.
”Frustration at having perfectly coherent thoughts in your head, but being unable to make them heard; frustration at not being able to do things for yourself”
Whether you’re good at art or not, it’s fulfilling at any age to let your emotions out with some paints or crayons on a piece of paper. Those with dementia are often filled with different emotions to the rest of us; we all feel love, hate and annoyance, but dementia prompts more keen feelings of emotions like frustration. Frustration at having perfectly coherent thoughts in your head, but being unable to make them heard; frustration at not being able to do things for yourself; frustration at being unable to understand what is being asked of you. Pens and paper are sometimes a far better medium for letting out such a confusion of emotions than humans are. It is not always easy for a dementia sufferer to get out to buy cards, so at Christmas, Easter or birthday times, artistic card-making activities are both fun and productive.
”I mean, really, who doesn’t love the chance to get their glad-rags on and embark on a trip out to the theatre?”
The better care homes take their residents to see theatre, ballet or musical productions as a trip away from the everyday building they’re used to. For the less mobile, a pantomime crew tend to come in at Christmas and, occasionally, throughout the year for some more light-hearted performances. I mean, really, who doesn’t love the chance to get their glad-rags on and embark on a trip out to the theatre? It may not be the Royal Albert Hall or the London Coliseum, but most dementia sufferers will appreciate even the local am-dram for a change of scenery and a live performance.
Dementia is an awful disease which makes the lives of its victims and their families unbearable at times. But there are certain things to brighten the days of all involved, and the arts is often one of them.