Why the Arts Should Embrace Dementia-Friendly Initiatives

28/01/2016 23:08 | Updated 28 January 2016

Right from Hollywood blockbusters and British television shows to theatre productions and works of art, dementia seems to be attracting more and more interest from people in the arts world.

It was a year ago, that the amazing Julianne Moore rightly won the Best Actress Oscar for her starring role in Still Alice, which focused on a brilliant academic, who developed younger onset dementia.

Closer to home over in Emmerdale land, they have recently been working with Alzheimer's Society staff to tackle the issue of vascular dementia with their resident vicar Ashley Thomas, who is played by John Middleton, being diagnosed with the condition.

In the West End, a play called The Father, which starred Kenneth Cranham and Claire Skinner, was earning rave reviews for the way it provided an insight into Alzheimer's disease when it was staged at the Wyndham Theatre.

And the artist Grayson Perry turned his attention in his own inimitable style to a couple with dementia in their lives for a Channel 4 series that saw his work exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery.

In February, dementia is about to come under the spotlight again when Will Smith hits our cinema screens with a starring role in the film Concussion which focuses on the link between head injuries and American Football.

I think it's fair to say that Concussion is bound to be a big hit at the box office and it's bound to get people talking about dementia and will keep chipping away at social stereotypes which is important because it is a condition that is very close to my heart.

That's the case because I saw my dear old nana develop dementia and it hurt everyone around her. I thought the world of my nana, who was called Iris Headley and, like me, lived in Nottingham. I'll always remember going to her home as a kid, sprawling across the floor with lots of paper and colouring pens. That was sheer bliss and has left me with very fond memories.

Sadly, I know from that personal experience that dementia is one of those illnesses that can be very scary for anybody, especially at the first stage of dementia when there's a state of confusion for everybody.

This ranges right from the person who is living with dementia and family to friends and people they come into contact with on a daily basis like the postman because of the change in behaviour.

So, I'm really glad the entertainment world is making such a fuss out of dementia because raising awareness is so important to people who have the condition, their carers and loved ones because there is still a stigma attached to it.

Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be a cure for dementia in sight so that means we've got to make sure that people living with dementia can live well in their communities.

I think things are getting better, but there's still a taboo when it comes to dementia and that means that people who have the condition can become socially isolated because they're worried what others will think.

It is because of this that I passionately support Alzheimer's Society and the work the charity does because they are constantly striving to make life better for people with dementia and their carers.

And that's why I'm right behind a new Alzheimer's Society initiative which aims to encourage arts venues such as theatres, cinemas and art galleries to make themselves more accessible to people who have dementia and their loved ones, carers and friends.

The charity, which estimates that there are 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK , have teamed up with experts from the arts world to get things going by producing a dementia-friendly arts guide which is officially titled 'Becoming a dementia friendly arts venue: A practical guide'.

They have done so because, quite rightly, they strongly feel that everyone has the right to participate in the arts, and for people with dementia, we know that there are many benefits.

Participation in the arts can overcome the loneliness and social isolation which can often follow a dementia diagnosis.

There are physical and mental benefits. Arts activities such as singing and are overwhelmingly described by people in early to mid-stage dementia as enjoyable, pleasurable, engaging, stimulating and positively challenging.

And research shows evidence of benefits in terms of quality of life, well-being, reasoning, emotion and mood, activity level, behavioural change (increase or decrease in targeted behaviours), episodic memory, long-term memory, verbal fluency.

Sadly, in our case with nana it was quite a quick development and she wasn't really active after she was diagnosed with dementia She stayed indoors and going out was restricted to visits to the hospital or doctors.

In hindsight, it would have been nice to have taken her somewhere like the theatre if we knew the facilities would be catered to her needs.

If the whole place and staff had been clearly dementia-friendly - with, for example, staff having an awareness of dementia, better signage, lighting and suitable programming - that would have been great and would have encouraged us to get out and about.

Going to the theatre with a carer or with a family member is always going to be a very confusing time for them, especially if they haven't been there for a long time. So knowing someone there can look after them and look out for them and are aware they have dementia would be very helpful.

It's even more important to know there are things that people who are living with dementia can do as much as anyone else. They just need to have their hand held a bit while they do it. That's so they know they are in a nice secure environment.

That's why I'd love to see more theatres, cinemas, museums, concert halls and art galleries embrace the dementia-friendly arts initiative.

Alzheimer's Society research proves people with dementia and their carers don't just want to stay indoors and hate being lonely and isolated. They want to live their lives to the full. They've still got a zest for life.