James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Society, discusses how the Arts can help people living with dementia.
The arts hold a unique place in our lives. Whether it’s singing, poetry, museums or dance, the arts and culture enrich our lives and bring pleasure to everybody at some point.
For people with dementia this is no different, as the popularity of Singing for the Brain shows. Researchers have therefore begun to develop an increasing interest in the arts, aiming to find evidence as to how and why the arts may be able to help people with dementia.
Bringing together the arts and dementia research
In 2015, Alzheimer’s Society funded eight Doctoral Training Centres around the UK, to train the next generation of dementia researchers. One of these centres is shared between the Universities of Nottingham and Worcester and is known as ‘Tandem’ (for ‘The Arts and Dementia’), and will train eight new PhD students in understanding the role of the creative arts in dementia care. As part of the work of the DTC, these bright and energetic students were charged with organising a conference that would bring together academics, arts practitioners and people affected by dementia. It was described as the first conference of this kind in the UK on this topic, and I was a lucky invited speaker.
Along with interactive dance and poetry sessions, there was a lot of discussion about the role that research has in the arts. After all, if the arts are pleasant and enjoyed by people with dementia – why do we need to measure this effect? Who are we trying to convince? Lots of discussion focused on how research can better collect and use the many anecdotal stories reported by people who run arts groups. Other researchers talked about understanding the mechanisms by which the arts were beneficial for people affected by dementia. For instance, does singing have direct effects on the brain, or work indirectly through promoting social interaction between individuals? Can it help to break down barriers between professional staff and carers in care homes?
The researcher presents did a lot of soul-searching as to the important role they could play. Meanwhile, commissioners talked about the wider local benefits they often looked for in funding arts projects, not just to benefit those taking part but also for the wider local community.
‘Wellcome’ to the hub
There seemed a sense that dementia research was really just getting going in relation to the arts. Another project that Alzheimer’s Society is involved in started on October 4, called the Wellcome hub. Based near Euston in London, this offers a large exhibition and performing space where researchers, people affected by dementia and arts practitioners can mingle and work together. The space is open for two years and we have some interesting ideas how we will work with them – watch this space!
‘Shall I compare thee to a dose of Donepezil?’ is a tongue-in-cheek line (but has been written by an actual poet!) but asks an important question about whether using the creative arts could be comparable to the therapeutic effect of anti-Alzheimer’s drugs. Thankfully, people with dementia should not have to choose. All people with Alzheimer’s disease should be prescribed appropriate medication, and also be provided with rich opportunity to take part in non-drug activities such as the arts.