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Using the arts to help dementia sufferers

Posted on 28/10/2015

While research is exploring potential medical treatments for dementia, and advice is abundant in how to help delay or prevent the onset of the disease, for those who already suffer there is a range of different support solutions available. A lot of the non-medical support looks at ways in which different activities can be used to help keep the brain active and slow down the progression of dementia. 

With it being predicted that there will be more than a million people with dementia by 2021 in the UK alone, it is important to understand what can be done to help. The arts, in particular, are becoming a popular way to offer support to dementia patients. Here we take a look at three arts – music, art and literature – and the ways that they are being used to help dementia sufferers in the community and within residential care environments.

Music

Music has long been shown to have an impact on dementia sufferers to positive effect. Music has the power to trigger memories, feelings and emotions by transporting us to a time when we first heard a particular song. This can help to alleviate some of the symptoms of dementia, says an article on the subject by Age UK. “The power of music, especially singing, to unlock memories and kickstart the grey matter is an increasingly key feature of dementia care. It seems to reach parts of the damaged brain in ways other forms of communication cannot.”

Many care homes use music to help bring together older people with dementia in a group-based environment, which has the added bonus of building social relationships. There are a number of companies around the UK that offer musical services to care homes, including Lost Chord and Singing for the Brain.

Those with dementia who are at home can still benefit from music-based support. Purple Angel Music (part of The Purple Angel, a global company set up to change the way that people see dementia and treat others) offers specially constructed music systems that include spoken messages and prompts to remind listeners to complete basic tasks, like drinking and eating regularly to reduce the risk of dehydration and lack of nutrition, as well as using music to stimulate memories. The pre-loaded devices can be played at home and come in four different genres, reworked and rewritten to give simple messages and directions on a regular basis throughout the day.

Art

Art therapy is used around the country as a way to help dementia sufferers to stay creative and to maintain cognitive skills.

Arts4Dementia is a specialist charity that helps to train arts organisations in dementia awareness, as well as hosts events. Its specialisms cover all arts (art, music, dance and drama), and it offers advice on how to best utilise these. In terms of art itself, it suggests that trips to art galleries or exhibitions can be a great way to encourage discussion, which is something that can be enjoyed by dementia sufferers who are looked after at home and their carers. It also suggests encouraging painting, photography and crafting to keep the brain active and work with the hands. It says that by using your creative brain it can override the stress of memory loss as well as boosting mood.

Art therapy sessions are, like the music classes, common in residential care homes. They are also offered in day centres for those living in the community, so if you are caring for a relative or you work as a paid carer, then try researching what is available in the local area. Group-based activities can also help to deal with issues of isolation and boost social interaction.   

Literature

Reading is a skill that many of us take for granted and one that can be lost to dementia, as it requires a lot of concentration. One solution to this is to use a shared reading group, which has been shown to “improve quality of life through cognitive stimulation, social interaction and meaningful engagement each week” says The Reader Group.

It says that its groups show a noticeable improvement in mood and concentration during each group, but also afterwards. The shared reading groups bring together groups of people to read aloud stories or poems and encourage discussion of the text or the memories associated with it. There is no pressure to read out loud, as listening brings so many benefits in itself. It currently reaches 2,000 a week in the UK and hopes to expand throughout the country.

If you are a carer or have an elderly relative with dementia, then setting aside some time to read to them can be beneficial, even one-on-one. Choose literature from their youth and discuss the events of the books and any memories that it triggers. 

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