James Pickett, Head of Research at Alzheimer's Society, discusses how the arts can help people living with dementia.
Art and culture holds a unique place in our lives. Whether it's singing, poetry, museums or dance, they enrich our lives and bring pleasure to everybody at some point.
This is no different for people with dementia, 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 they may be able to help people with dementia.
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 - short for 'the arts and dementia'. It will train eight new PhD students in understanding the role of the creative arts in dementia care. As part of the work of the centre, these bright and energetic students were charged with organising a conference to 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 lucky to be invited as a 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 does it work indirectly by promoting social interaction? Can it help to break down barriers between professional staff and carers in care homes?
Researchers at the conference did a lot of soul-searching about the important role they could play. Meanwhile, commissioners talked about the wider local benefits they often looked for when funding arts projects, not only for 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, called the Hub, started in October. Based at the Wellcome Collection in London, this offers a large area for exhibitions and performances where researchers, people affected by dementia and arts practitioners can mingle and work together. It is open for two years and we have some interesting ideas about how we will work with them - watch this space.
'Shall I compare thee to a dose of donepezil?' is a tongue-in-cheek line - one written by an actual poet - but it asks an important question about whether using the creative arts could be comparable to the therapeutic effect of drug treatments.
Thankfully, people with dementia should not have to choose. They should all be prescribed any appropriate medication, and also be provided with rich opportunities to take part in activities that don't rely on drugs, such as the arts.