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Forgotten dementia sufferers helped through art

07 October 2011 Royal Holloway, University of London

While medical researchers continue the search for advanced diagnosis, prevention and treatment of dementia, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London is focusing on improving the experiences of those already suffering with the devastating disease for whom any cure would be too late.  

Professor Helen Nicholson is devoting her time to evaluating a pioneering project which enables advanced dementia sufferers to take part in art, drama and dance projects.  

Hearts and Minds is a unique creative arts and reminiscence project, run by Age Exchange, specifically for older people with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia but also including people with other mental health needs such as schizophrenia and depression.

Artists are be working with care staff in South London and Maudsley NHS Trust to hold group work and one-to-one performing arts session with dementia sufferers.

Dementia is a terrifying and isolating disease that affects brain function and in particular the ability to remember, think and reason. Around 750,000 people have been diagnosed with dementia in the UK and the Department of Health predicts that this number is to double in the next 30 years. There is no cure and symptoms will get worse over time.

Although dementia sufferers often have little or no short term memory, their long term memory is intact and they can use this in the Hearts and Minds project.

Many dementia sufferers receive care either in residential homes or through day centres and it is here that the Hearts and Minds project is working with artists and care staff on performing arts projects that will culminate in a theatre production.

Professor Nicholson, from the Drama and Theatre Department, is evaluating the three-year project to assess the benefits to the dementia sufferers, with the hope that the project can be rolled out to care providers across the UK.

She is speaking to the care staff involved in the project and talking to the dementia sufferers and their families to get an understanding of their experiences of the project.

Professor Nicholson says: “We know that historically, dementia sufferers have been largely ignored during the latter stages of their illnesses. We hope the Hearts and Minds project will demonstrate that this need not be the case and care staff can be trained to offer exciting interactive activities through performing arts.”

She adds: “This is an arts-based inquiry rather than a scientific one at this stage. This follows their belief in person-centred care for people with dementia rather than a model that treats it entirely medically.”

Age Exchange hope that the project will help combat the feelings of isolation, loneliness and exclusion among sufferers; improve their ability to communicate; and help develop a bond between carers and sufferers.

David Savill, Director of Age Exchange, says: “This is all about improving the lives of those with mental health illnesses in care homes or in the community. Often care staff have incredible talent and this project will show them how to use it to benefit their patients. There is so much that people with dementia can do, if only they are given the opportunity.”

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