Helping people to reconnect: positive projects for people with dementia

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Every three minutes, someone in the UK develops dementia. Over 850,00 people in the UK are currently living with a form of the disease; 40,000 of these are people under the age of 65.  This week (20th– 26th May) is Dementia Action Week 2019. This year the focus is on encouraging people to talk about dementia, and to talk to people with dementia in order to help tackle loneliness and isolation among those who suffer from the condition, as well as to raise awareness and improve understanding around the condition and the impact it can have.

The power of music

You may have recently come across the BBC programme featuring Line of Duty’s Vicky McClure Our Dementia Choir (if you haven’t you should try and find a copy).  The documentary follows a group of people who suffer from varying degrees and types of dementia and highlights in sometimes painfully sad detail the changes and challenges that can occur when someone develops the disease. However, it also shows the great joy and relief that music brings to dementia sufferers and their families. We blogged a few years ago about the benefits of music therapy in dementia care – and since then the literature and research on its usage in different settings has only grown.

Research shows that music, in various forms can help encourage participation and trigger positive associations which can be really helpful for people suffering from dementia, particularly if they feel like a lot of other things may have changed. In our previous blog we highlighted a Care Inspectorate backed scheme called ‘playlist for life’ which encourages care homes to integrate music into their care for patients with dementia. Moving beyond just allocating a time to place headphones onto a patient and leaving them to listen alone (although at times this may be helpful too), the aim is for music to be a vehicle for connected care. It allows carers to use music as a tool to find out more about the person they are caring for and encourage them to engage through the music.

Tackling isolation with art, culture and the natural environment

Research has shown that it is not only music that can have a positive impact on quality of life for people with dementia. Painting and drawing, making use of the natural surroundings by encouraging gardening or light walking in safe spaces, and games like dominoes and draughts can all help in their own way to improve the quality of life for people living with dementia and provide an opportunity for loved ones to re-connect.

In a 2014 study researchers examined the experiences of people with dementia and their carers when they participated in an 8 week programme based in an art gallery designed specifically to tackle social isolation and improve quality of life for both the person suffering from dementia and their carer. The study found that while the impact in terms of qualitative measures was negligible, participants were unanimous in their enjoyment and satisfaction with the programme. They highlighted that the interventions at the galleries helped to foster social inclusion and social engagement, enhance the caring relationship between the carers and people with dementia, and stimulate cognitive processes of attention and concentration. In a similar study, looking at the impact of art and gallery settings and programmes delivered within these settings, similarly positive emotional effects on study participants were found.

In Liverpool, they are making the most of their city landscape and the fact that specific locations, building and objects around the city can act as positive triggers for people who suffer from dementia, stimulating memory and interest. Those individuals who are mobile enough can participate in “memory walks” (different from the Memory Walks convened by the Alzheimer’s Society, which are sponsored walks designed to help raise money and offer a public show of support for people with the illness). This not only helps to improve physical activity, it can also be an opportunity for people with dementia to connect with other people as the walks are usually carried out in small groups, they are also linked to befriending schemes across the city to help reduce social isolation among multiple groups.

Similarly, many care homes now also promote interaction with nature and outside spaces for residents with dementia, with many developing specifically landscaped “sensory” gardens for residents, while other innovative supported living accommodation projects have gone a step further and created entire villages on site, which allows residents to perform tasks such as shopping or visiting a hairdresser. (This project is based in the Netherlands, but there are suggestions that a similar scheme could also come to the UK in 2020.)

VR and creating virtual experiences for people

Using digital technologies has also become increasingly popular, particularly in care homes. Apps and VR headsets which allow people to be immersed in an experience they perhaps once enjoyed, such as flying (if for example they had previously been a pilot or air crew) or driving have been shown to have a significant positive impact on people’s wellbeing allowing them to reconnect with their past and memories and freeing them from the sense of being trapped and losing their independence which can sometimes come with moving away from home into supported accommodation.

Tablet computers and touchscreen technology can also sometimes be easier for people with dementia to use as they do not require the same level of dexterity as writing. Apps have been developed which can help with word association or use pictures which can be helpful in allowing people with dementia to communicate when their use of language becomes more of a challenge. While the technology its self is relatively new, research has shown definite scope and benefit of further development of this in the future, as well as relevant training for staff and carers on digital literacy to help support users.

A support to clinical interventions

Dementia is a cruel illness – 1 in 3 of us in the UK will develop a form of the condition at some point in our lives. As yet there is no cure and as the population ages, and life expectancy improves more generally, the number of cases is expected to rise dramatically in the coming years. However, where science is trying to cure, art and culture is trying to supplement and support the clinical interventions and, where possible, provide opportunities to improve the quality of life for people suffering with the condition and provide opportunities for people to re-connect with loved ones.

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