How Still Alice is taking dementia-friendly theatre across the UK

Following a best-selling book and Hollywood film, the theatre adaptation of Still Alice is now showing across the UK. Learn how the play is championing inclusion, both on and off the stage.

Whether or not you have a personal connection to dementia, the play Still Alice is a conversation starter. 

Sharon Small’s performance as Alice brings to life the challenges associated with young-onset Alzheimer’s. But it’s not just what happens on stage that has got people talking. A series of ‘relaxed’ showings in local theatres have prompted conversation about dementia-friendly services in our local communities.

The play is relatively short, condensing three years of life into just 90 minutes. But in that time we see a series of emotional snapshots of a family coming to terms with Alice’s diagnosis.

A Q and A in Plymouth after the performance of Still Alice

Still Alice cast members discuss the plays key themes at a Q&A in Plymouth

A person-centred approach

One key focus of the play is how Alice’s family respond to her changing behaviour and common social stigmas. Speaking at a Q&A session in Plymouth, the cast explained how this is something they were keen to get right. In particular, the play shows the value of prioritising the emotions of the person with dementia in the moment.

This sentiment is also carried into the design of the performances themselves. The cast and crew of Still Alice were supported by people living with dementia throughout the production. This includes the development of 'relaxed' performances, designed to be more accessible to everyone affected by dementia. 

During these performances, the volume is lowered and lighting is set to a more comfortable level. The theatres also ensure there is a quiet environment outside of the main space. The priority is to enable those living with dementia to maintain an awareness of their environment, and avoid disorientation while watching the play.

Including people with dementia

Mark Brody, who lives with dementia, is part of the group that advised on the relaxed performances at Richmond Theatre. He’s an avid theatre goer who hasn’t let his diagnosis stop him doing the things that he loves:

‘My wife Judy and I still visit the theatre as much as I did before my diagnosis,’ says Mark.

‘I experience difficulty following plots on television and we always watch with subtitles turned on. But I don’t think I have yet been to the theatre when I have had to ask Judy for help with the plot, except for Shakespeare plays.’

Still, Mark feels it’s important for theatres to make changes and be more inclusive for people living with dementia. He explains:  

‘I think it is easier to help those watching television - by turning on subtitles and pausing programmes which enables someone to explain what is going on - than watching a play or pantomime. I suggested having volunteers on hand to quietly explain what is happening to help people follow the plot. Staff should also be warm and friendly and need to be training to recognise a person with dementia.’

The panel in Richmond included cast members and people living with dementia

The Q&A panel in Richmond included cast members and people living with dementia

Shared experiences

The introduction of relaxed screenings in places like Richmond and Plymouth is a positive example of how to create fulfilling, dementia-friendly environments.

This idea of fulfilment is a major takeaway from the play too. Despite its honest yet emotionally difficult themes, a clear note of positivity shines through. At one point, Alice herself gives a moving speech-monologue to this effect. Facing the audience, she states ‘I’m not someone dying, I’m someone living with dementia!’

It’s this message that is so important to remember. As a disease that will affect one in three people, we will all be people affected by dementia in our lifetime. Indeed the cast have spoken of their personal experiences, and as the curtain falls you can hear the audience sharing their own stories.

These stories can lead the way to understanding, helping us all strive towards a dementia-positive society.

Activity ideas for people with dementia

Read our ideas and tips for people with dementia to keep active and involved, both at home and in the community. 

Read our advice
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I am worried that my mum who is living with vascular dementia is not drinking at all. My dad and I have tried allsorts but mum refuses and pushes drinks away including somr special nutritional ensure drinks. Mum has been in hospital for a month in April this year, then she was transferred to an Elderholme for four months and has bern home for the last month with carers comimg in to help with personal care because my mum is extremely weak and confined to bed as we are still waiting for a hoist so she can use a commode orsit in the chair. Mum can't even sit herself up and the carers are concerned about Mum developing bed sores and dehydrating. How can we get her to drink?

Hi Paula, I'm sorry to hear about your mum's situation. I’m afraid refusing to drink is a common problem. Probably the best way forward is to try to include foods with a high liquid content including fruit, gravy, soups, jelly, ice cream and fruit lollies etc. Some people respond to seeing others eating the same foods, and it may be good to try to remain calm and just try little spoonfuls throughout the day. Turning her gently every two hours will help to avoid pressure sores. This link may be helpful: http://bit.ly/2sfnUxv
Admiral Nurses can advise on these matters too: 0800 888 6678, and we are here on the helpline to offer more thoughts and advice: 0300 222 1122.
Helpline advisor (Alzheimer's Society)

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