Q1. What is Arts 4 Dementia?

A: Arts 4 Dementia is a new charity helping to develop arts activities to re energise and inspire people in the early stages of dementia and their carers, with a focus on new outreach work at arts venues. Our programme for 2012, at venues around London, ranges across Art, Comedy, Dance, Drama, Music, Photography, Poetry and Communication.

Our work has three main coordinating strands. We have organised a national conference to help embed best practice in arts activities for dementia and this will take place at the Royal Albert Hall on 14th November 2011. We have set up a comprehensive website for people living with dementia in the community, their families and carers, arts organisations and health professionals (to give them confidence that this is beneficial to people with memory loss). So there’s something for everybody. We are also arranging arts activities for people with dementia across London (and signposting to similar arts activities in the community elsewhere in England and Wales).

Q2. What led to its creation?

A: My mother has had dementia for many years. I’d always known, from childhood, that arts benefit old people but it was a particular incident that acted as the catalyst.

A talented young Russian cellist, who was studying at the Guildhall, kindly played for my mother for about an hour, looking into her eyes throughout this time and while they had coffee. She became absorbed in the music, much of her natural light returned and it rekindled her love of music and young people. After that hour, she forgot he had come but felt good. I thought I need to do something about this.

Q3. So how did you first get started?

A: In autumn 2009 I approached Live Music Now, a project founded by Yehudi Menuhin and Ian Stoutzker to bring high quality music to people who don’t have access to it – for instance in hospitals, prisons and care homes. Live Music Now generously agreed to provide training workshops for a number of Music students at Kingston University, who have each been playing once a week to a person with dementia (and their carer) recommended for musical taste by Cathy Weight, the manager of Age Concern Kingston. This project took some time to set up, as it involved a number of different organisations, CRB checks for the students and so on – but it has proved very successful and culminated with a concert for all participants and their families and guests at the Studio, Kingston University. As students move on, we’re currently in discussion with Kingston University with a view to continuing the programme.

Q4. And what were the next steps?

A: This was the first of three inaugural projects. We also set up art tours at the Wallace Collection, which proved to be particularly engaging to all participants. For instance one, a wonderful octogenarian social worker, looked a bit worried on arrival but the moment she walked through the door the fantastic setting instantly uplifted her; and her daughter, who came with her, told us how much more animated her mother was and that people felt this was due to her weekly visits to the Wallace. Our third pilot project (Poetry and Communication) took place at Putney Library. The positive feedback was exemplified by one participant, who described herself as feeling ‘innovated.’ So much that had been unsaid came out. ‘When can I come again,’ they asked. The success of these first three projects confirmed the need for more.

Q5. How do you see Arts 4 Dementia now?

It has been remarkable to see how engagement in the arts triggers brain activity; and how these projects are restoring people’s sense of personal worth. For those with Alzheimer’s the creative brain is usually still working. After medication and exercise our experience is that artistic stimulation is the most constructive thing you can do.

High quality is important for people with mental health problems of all kinds, in contract to mental health settings, arts venues are potentially uplifting.

It is also encouraging that other organisations have begun to develop initiatives in recent years, like the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Singing for the Brain.’

What we have set up is a website where people can find arts activities nearest to them. Or rather, our website is new, and the more people hear about the facility, the more activities will be signposted nationwide. We link up with the Alzheimer’s Society and Dementia UK and people working in the field, so they can upload their activities and people can find the areas for their chosen art form.

Q6. Why are the Arts so important for people with dementia?

A: People with dementia live in the present. They can see , hear, act, dance, laugh, share and discuss ideas. Looking at a picture you don’t need to know who painted it – you can respond to it as a work of art and share discussion and ideas about it. It’s animating. For example ,one woman at the Wallace Collection event was less keen on ‘The Laughing Cavalier’ until she was persuaded to look more closely at the picture, to study the detail and begin to appreciate it. Because the events are for people with dementia and their carers, this has two further advantages. The carers are helped to look more closely than they might otherwise and there’s usually the opportunity to take home material, like a postcard of a painting or a book or a drawing or photograph on a mobile phone, and carry on discussing it and sharing ideas together. 

Published 26/10/2011