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How arts and culture supports people with dementia across the south west

Posted on 13 May 2016

We believe that experiencing arts and culture can transform the quality of life for individuals and communities; arts and culture give us joy, make us healthier, let us reflect and help us empathise.

That’s why it’s so important to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to be involved, particularly those who have less access like those living with dementia.

This weekend marks the start of Dementia Awareness Week: the Alzheimer’s Society are encouraging people to confront their concerns about dementia by addressing the condition directly and seeking information and support.

This is a good opportunity to share and celebrate some of the great projects that the Arts Council is supporting that bring cultural life to people living with dementia, their carers and those around them. In the south west there is a range of inspirational work; here are just a few examples:

Award winning charity Plymouth Music Zone uses the power of music to tackle loneliness and isolation by reaching out to some of the most vulnerable or marginalised people during their most difficult or challenging times.  For the last three years, the charity has been delivering music sessions to older people with dementia in residential care homes across the city of Plymouth as well as in two specialist Dementia Care Units. Specialist Music Leaders tailor weekly creative music-making and singing sessions to give the highest quality of life to older people and their families, including those with dementia and those at the end of their lives.

Plymouth Music Zone session in residential care home. Image ©  Kevin Clifford.

Researchers are currently working with Plymouth Music Zone to explore the impact of music making on a wide range of people who are non-verbal or those who may have profound communication barriers, including people living with dementia.

Plymouth Music Zone’s Training and Research Manager, Anna Batson, delivers some of the music sessions for people with dementia and says: “In a world that can be very confusing, music and singing allows people with dementia to be completely focussed and ‘in the moment’.  Using the right music when they’re confused helps them remember moments of their lives and triggers memories.  Finding a moment that was locked away in time can set something off so they’re able to share their emotional experience in a safe way through music, without having to explain themselves in words that might be difficult to find.

Singing also provides a rare opportunity for people with dementia to come together as a group. Even the physical actions of using your body when making music and the natural rhythms can have a positive effect. 

"What happens in our sessions isn’t to do with medical or clinical things but about interacting with them as people, it’s led by the participants but triggered by us.”

Plymouth Music Zone’s Executive Director, Debbie Geraghty: “As an organisation, we’ve had to really increase our awareness of dementia over the past few years thanks to working with care homes and other health and social care organisations who’ve invited us in to explore working with people living with dementia.  But if we’ve learned anything, it is never to assume we know what anyone can or cannot do at any given point in time.  Not a day goes by when Music Leaders, carers or participants in residential homes aren’t beautifully surprised by the way that music can really open up powerful ways of connecting with others living with dementia. 

Yes, music can reduce isolation, improve communication, memory and emotional wellbeing - but it can also bring a sense of immense hope and dignity to even the smallest of moments.

"That’s worth treasuring and is the main reason we’ll be doing all we can to continue the vital work in these areas”.

Plymouth Music Zone recording with residents from Hartley Park Care Home. Image ©  Plymouth Music Zone.

A partnership of two National portfolio organisations, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (BSO) and Arts & Health South West have been delivering music workshops and performances for people living with Dementia in acute hospital settings in a project called Music for a While.

BSO Associate, Neil Valentine, ran weekly workshops and performances on acute medical wards in Poole, Portsmouth and Winchester hospitals. This had a strong impact on the patients and their families, as one family member said: “I would like to thank Neil for coming to the hospital and playing his viola for the patients.  My father enjoyed this and parts of him were coming back if only for a little while!”

Nursing staff observed it enabled them to see the person and not just the patient as it facilitated communication in those who were unable to speak and calming those who might otherwise be agitated.  

Linda Field, Head of Nursing for Older People, Rehabilitation and Stroke, said: “Patients with dementia may often feel vulnerable and distressed in a strange environment, and music has been shown to help increase emotional wellbeing and to decrease agitation.”

As part of this project a pilot research project was undertaken at Winchester Hospital by the Centre for the Arts as Wellbeing at the University of Winchester. It was found that there was a 27.72% decrease in the number of prescribed anti-psychotic drugs on the day of the music activity despite an overall increase in anti-psychotic drugs in that time period as compared to a year before. A trend was also identified in a reduction in falls recorded on the day of the music.

Artist and storyteller Cassandra Wye has also been working with BSO to help the Orchestra become a more dementia friendly organisation as part of the Arts Council’s Agents for Change programme. Agents for Change is a pilot programme that aims to match-make organisations that want to change – to see diversity embedded in the cultural ‘mainstream’, - with artists who have the skills to help them realise their potential.

At the end of a six month collaborative project  a dementia friendly afternoon concert took place in the art gallery at the Lighthouse, Poole, with a BSO Trio performing in an informal café style setting that was created with tables and chairs so that people could sit together with their family, friends and carers. The concert was designed in response to the local community’s suggestions as to what would make a dementia friendly concert. The research meant that a relaxed environment and atmosphere was achieved that clearly lowered the anxiety levels for both those living with dementia, their family members and carers.

Tea Dances with a Twist! is a monthly intergenerational social event held at Plymouth Guildhall. Co-produced by Plymouth Dance and Miss Ivy Events there are live music and highly trained dance experts teaching a variety of dance styles, from Waltz, Jive and Cha Cha Cha to the Charlestone, Lindy Hop and Hip Hop.

The project aims to improve health and wellbeing through participation in a social and physical activity. Specifically targeted at over 50s the events encourage community cohesion. As well as being open to the public, Plymouth Dance is actively promoting these events to people living with disabilities, dementia and Parkinson’s. Plymouth Dance is also working in partnership with other dementia friendly organisations to help Plymouth become a dementia friendly city.

June Gamble, Coordinating Producer, Plymouth Dance said:  “We are really excited to present ‘Tea Dances with a Twist!’ at Plymouth’s iconic venue Plymouth Guildhall. These events will give everyone the chance to trip the light fantastic down memory lane.”

The Bournemouth University Dementia Institute (BUDI) Orchestra is an orchestra for people with first-onset dementia and their carers. Participants learn to play a string musical instrument alongside professional symphony orchestra musicians, in rehearsals and performances.

The project helps raise awareness of dementia through public performances, challenging perceptions held about dementia despite the ever increasing numbers of people affected by this condition who wish to continue active lives.

“This is the highlight of my musical week”, says Andy Baker, one of the professional musicians leading the group. “The orchestra now meets on a regular basis and has developed a repertoire of classical pieces, popular songs and traditional folk music, and are continually exploring new pieces and playing techniques. It really is a wonderful project for everyone taking part”.

Composer Marc Yeats took a residency at Yeovil Hospital and Dorset County Hospital where he researched a wide range of issues concerning dementia to build a musical response to the condition. Forget-Me-Not, a new composition, came out of this project and premiered at Yeovil Hospital Garden in May.

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