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How the Arts Defy Our Perceptions of What it Means to Have Dementia

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One of the most poignant films I have seen was of an elderly man in the far gone stages of dementia playing a piano sonata to perfection. According to the music therapist showing us the film, he was aggressive and difficult with care staff and couldn't even find the door handle to get into a room. But he could certainly play the piano. The most striking thing was the sophistication with which he listened for nuances and sensitively adjusted his touch to bring out the subtleties of the piece.

Poet Karen Hayes sits with people with dementia for hours waiting for them to talk and reveal the inner workings of their mind through rambling narratives. She then transcribes these as poems that are given back to them, to carers, care homes and placed in their GP notes. When you read these poems it is as though an inner world is being viewed through mist, gently revealing the personality, history and feelings of the individual.

Some of the behaviour that we find challenging to our social norms can give those with dementia an advantage when confronted with works of art. They say what they think! Many of our major museums now have programmes to encourage guided visits to their collections. It seems that looking at artworks can ease the characteristic symptoms of anxiety, aggression, agitation and apathy. The part of the brain that dementia damages is the bit that gives us access to our memories, not the memories themselves. Most memories are stored as images. Images can give access to emotional memories.

Soundworks, a project by B Arts and Keele University, uses digital technology when working with residents in a care home. One resident no longer recognises her husband although he still visits her daily. She was given a digital memory box with a slide show of images past and present and with recorded conversations and music she enjoys. She appeared to show no interest until a photo of her husband aged 20 came up and she reached out and stroked it. The Own Now programme run by Pioneer Projects works with people in remote rural communities in North Yorkshire. People with dementia are supported in accessing opportunities to visit and take part in cultural activities, combatting loneliness and improving the quality of their lives and those of their carers.

An Irish actor who works with people with dementia said that it is like walking into the world of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Some of the most effective care of those with dementia is when care staff are imaginative and playful, creating a theatrical world of memories and props - a world that makes a different kind of sense. The environment they work in can help or hinder a creative approach to care. So it was good to hear Jeremy Hunt's announcement last week that 50 million is being allocated to create care environments for people with dementia that help reduce anxiety and distress. This is based on evidence from the King's Fund's Enhancing the Healing Environment programme. One of the projects they supported was at Franklyn Hospital in Exeter, where story corridors and themed areas have encouraged staff to discover new ways to communicate with patients with dementia. People with dementia chose many of the artworks in the building; garden plants were selected by giving patients sensory prompts such as smells, touch and pictures; and patients were involved in contributing to the creation of artworks for sensory trails.

Case studies of these projects and more are part of the campaign Arts in Health: Improving Lives which showcases arts in health projects throughout England to demonstrate how arts, creativity and imagination help keep the individual resilient, aid recovery and foster a flourishing society.