Thinking about dementia and the arts

Recently the Dementia Services Development Centre held an ‘IdeasLab’, which is a way of bringing together new thinking on an existing topic. The ideas on art and dementia are described in detail in a short film about the event: www.dementia.stir.ac.uk/ideas/ideaslab-2015

Questions that arose in discussion about how art and art activity are used in dementia care go to the heart of our thinking about dementia.

They challenge accepted assumptions. The IdeasLab showed the value of exploring ideas and projects side by side. Projects that had been developed in isolation gained value by connecting to others. International exchange added much to this discussion.

People often ask how innovative ideas and projects can be better supported and connected together, earlier in their development. Exchange and learning depend on how well ideas and projects are captured and documented as they develop. Open and objective evaluation, however difficult to achieve, still seems elusive. Clear evaluation is hampered by overuse of abstract language and a lack of credible measures of effect.

Equally, it seems that projects are being encouraged by funders to overstate their value and effect to secure funding. There needs to be a sharper, shared understanding of what constitutes objective evidence of improvement for people with dementia. How can projects be properly documented, shared and evaluated in an open, supportive and critical way if the funders ‘need’ a certain result?

The IdeasLab threw up different views about the role and value of the arts in relation to dementia. Some projects, broadly speaking, celebrated the inherent and therapeutic value of participation in individual arts activities as an end in itself. They were about an intervention to improve mood or deliver an experience, with the artist involved as mainly a therapeutic giver of benefit.

The IdeasLab did not manage to explore in detail issues about other more challenging and exciting roles for artists and issues around the quality of art. It left us with the question of how discussion on the role, quality and effect of the art itself, rather than its therapeutic value, should be promoted. One surprising theme was where and how work should be exhibited.

Projects showed different possible directions for physical display and performance – in clinical settings, by bringing people to traditional art spaces like galleries or concert halls, or by developing dedicated and professional spaces linked to community sites. These are not necessarily alternatives but each has implications for the way art is seen in relation to dementia and how people with dementia are perceived or even at times, exploited or manipulated.

What is the future direction for exhibition and performance where art meets dementia? It was encouraging to see technology being used to engage directly with individuals and the environment they are in. Discussion at the IdeasLab suggested much more can be done given more encouragement and investment.

We need to work out how technology can be used more extensively and creatively to open up dementia in new ways.

About the author

June AndrewsJune Andrews is director, Dementia Services Development Centre, University of Stirling

The Nursing Older People acute care dementia series starts in the July issue, out now.