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Research published by the IPPR (Institute for Public Policy Research) in 2013 shows that an increasing number of women are caught between providing care for children and elderly parents, often while pursuing their career. At the same time, it is expected that the number of people with dementia will double over the next 30 years.

Dementia doesn’t get better with time. People affected by it gradually fade away and the process is irreversible. You feel helpless as a loved one slowly disappears.

There is, however, something that you can do to help.

What is dementia?

The Alzheimer Society describes dementia as “a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. Dementia is caused when the brain is damaged by diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease or a series of strokes.”

Many people with dementia lose confidence and eventually their communication skills. The lack of motivation, the poor sense of self-worth, the loss of skills, the depression, the anxiety etc… are well-documented all over the world. This leads to frustration and sadness for both your parents and yourself.

But what can we do?

Although people with dementia forget things, events and even people, they do remember emotions. When they experience positive emotions, they feel happy, and their quality of life improves. The Alzheimer Society explains that the person with dementia will “retain some of their abilities, and will still feel an emotional connection to people and their environment“.

So, feelings persist. It is crucial to understand this. For instance, they may not remember being told off and why, but they will remember the distress it caused; equally, they may not remember who gave them a cuddle but they will remember the happiness they felt.

One way of providing these feel-good emotions, is to get people involved in meaningful activities, particularly artistic activities like painting, singing, dancing…

Get your parents active, creatively, and they will feel happier. You will feel better too as you will enjoy spending time with them.

Trish Flynn, is an artist and she lives in Whitstable. When her mother developed dementia, it wasn’t easy for the family. She explained: “My sister was in denial, she became stigmatised, angry and ashamed of mum and eventually cruel as her illness progressed. I felt helpless as they were in Birmingham.”

This sense of helplessness motivated Trish to learn more and she decided to develop skills that would enable her to help both carers and victims. She now visits her aunt Gwen in her care home, and manages communication with her using different triggers. Music is very efficient. “There is one song – ‘I like a nice cup of tea’ – which she will sing at full throttle; she lights up when she sings. I wish I knew some old songs to prompt her for a bit of variety.”

Artistic activities are motivating for people with dementia. They provide opportunities for creative and emotional expression; they increase confidence and improve relationships. Involved in creative activities, they revive or learn new skills and increase their happiness, leading to more stable lives.

This is being proven by a number of studies from organisations such as Sidney de Haan – Research Centre for Arts and Health; NICE and The Medical Research Council (MRC).

Dr Trish Vella-Burrows is a lecturer in Arts and Health and Dementia Care, Canterbury Christ Church University. She led a study for the Sidney De Haan Research Centre for Arts and Health, based on the ‘Remember to Dance’ programme designed for people with dementia. Her report shows the positive impact of dance activities: “Findings support the growing evidence that regular, dementia-focused dance activities, delivered by specialist practitioners, can improve and prolong good quality of life relating to physical and mental wellbeing for people affected by dementia, and to help to maintain and even improve function for those with the condition.”

It is useful to understand though that these triggers vary from one person to another, depending on their interests. Trish explains that her aunt’s care home has musical sessions but although the entertainers try hard to encourage people they can’t engage with all of them. She adds: “Thus far I have learned that– those with dementia cannot be lumped together as a general clump of folk. Each is different to the other as are their responses. i.e. my mum loved flowers and watercolour painting, and did not respond to music, whilst Aunty Gwen trills like a bird, but I can get no response if I take drawing things to try with her.“

It is worth mentioning here that some people may be resistant to getting involved in doing something they know they can no longer do at a similar level. This should be respected.

Sue Toft, is an artist who lives in Gravesend. She says: “Through art, I share my skills to help the wellbeing of others.” So far, she has seen people become calmer and more content: “At the end of some sessions there has been a happy buzz in the air, lots of chatter and smiling faces.”

Bernice Friend, is a textile artist from Rochester. Her father had dementia and became aggressive to his wife so he had to go into a home, but was very unhappy there. “There was no stimulation of any kind and they said they couldn’t cope with him”. So he was transferred to Darland House, in Gillingham, who take the hard-to- handle cases. “It was our saviour” says Bernice. “As soon as he moved in he was a different person, happy and fulfilled. It was like his second family, where he felt safe and loved. He visited the activity room every day where he would help paint the displays for the walls, with different themes for the time of year. They would make things, do all sorts of activities. He also enjoyed the music and the singing. The creativity gave him a feeling of self-worth and importance. It was stimulation through creativity that brought something of my dad back and made his last few years happy and fulfilled.“

Easy tips for art activities

If you don’t have much free time, you can still have positive and rewarding time with your parents by doing a few things with them. Find some examples on www.kentcreativearts.co.uk/the-arts-and-wellbeing.

At Kent Creative Arts, in partnership with others, we have put together a training programme for artists to learn how to work with people with dementia. If you would like artists to come to you, or a care home, for an art led activity, do contact us.

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