Arts and Dementia - does theatre care?

Nicky Taylor, 5 October 2012

West Yorkshire Playhouse runs Heydays, the largest older people's weekly participation project in UK theatre with over 400 members. 2 years ago we also started working on a much smaller scale with older people with dementia, using poetry, storytelling and drama, song writing and visual arts. This is delivered in partnership with Leeds Museums & Galleries, Leeds Libraries and Peer Support Network for people with dementia.
Key themes up for discussion:
Making theatre about dementia or memory loss
Making creative work (in any art form) with people with dementia
People with dementia as audience members

Is the amount of dementia plays/ scripts reaching saturation point? Is it trendy to write about dementia at the moment, and is this making it boring? Is the bleakness often used in presenting dementia too negative? Is dementia usually portrayed as a stereotype? Does all work on dementia have to present it as an issue or can it be more subtle than that?

Frantic Assembly's Lovesong addresses aging and memory fragmentation in a beautiful, subtle way. Red Cape's 1 Beach Road beautifully presented the fragmentation of memory in early onset dementia alongside the coastal erosion of a seaside town. Similar themes explored in Silica by Victoria Pratt. Subtlety of discussion on ageing and death in Bennett's Talking Heads is powerful. Melanie Wilson's Autobiographer puts the audience in the position of feeling isolated by dementia by asking them questions it's impossible to answer.

Who are we making this work for? Is it people with dementia, therapy for their caregivers, for people who fear dementia with no experience of it? How would we feel about an audience of people with dementia watching this work, and what is our responsibility in presenting this? Personal experience of dementia can inform this work or cause people to seek it out. People can fear hearing about dementia, but fear can also drive us to make creative work.

Some creative work has been identified as improving after diagnosis - Terry Pratchett, Ravel's Bolero.
Are issues of mental health glamourised by big-budget films? How self indulgent or exploitative is this? How does funding impact on the type of work made?

Reminiscence vs. new learning - should we be looking back, or creative new challenges? Some evidence to suggest people who have not been creative in previous years can find creativity after diagnosis if this is nurtured. Great importance of nurturing creativity for as long as possible, to stimulate and calm anxiety. Example given of pianist who had a diagnosis of dementia but not the manifestation of the illness, attributed possibly by his continual learning and creative work.

What are the ethics of working creatively with people with dementia, particularly in later stage - what is their capacity to opt in, or out? Who makes decisions about their involvement?

What support or training is there for family carers to engage their loved one in the arts? Creative training for care staff is available (Ladder to the Moon) but how much is it used? And what's available for families who may have more time to engage than care staff? Can carers organisations offer this in collaboration with arts organisations?

It's highly likely that at least 2 or 3 of the 12 people who attended this discussion will develop dementia - what would we want? An ability to contribute for as long as possible. Would we want to be put on a public platform to perform? Is there a kind of pre-dementia planning that can be implemented before diagnosis - a bit like retirement planning to manage what happens to us? Should we celebrate the state of being in the moment - is there a state of happiness or contentment in dementia?

Links between people who experience depression and then dementia - how does social isolation exacerbate this? Is the key work to be done with communities in general to raise awareness and open dialogue rather than focus on specific groups of people with a common condition? Do politicians drive the agenda on which age group receives the most input and does this pitch age groups against each other?

Is intergenerational work the way forward? Plays for children addressing dementia such as Mike Kenny's The Gardener and Theatre Hullabaloo's Angel can educate and encourage intergenerational work.


older people, care homes, intergenerational, aging, Dementia, Alzheimers, care, dementia, Care homes