How music and theatre can help in the battle against dementia

West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds will today launch a guide for theatres on how to stage performances for people living with dementia. Chris Bond reports.

Dementia is rapidly becoming the biggest health and social care challenge of the 21st century. In the UK alone, the total number of people with the condition is expected to top the one million mark within 10 years. Not only that but despite an increase in funding and the tireless work of teams of dedicated scientists there is no long-term cure.

There are, however, ways of alleviating its destructive symptoms and these are becoming more widely accessible. The power of music, especially singing, to unlock memories has become an increasingly key feature in dementia care, with studies suggesting it is able to reach parts of the damaged brain in ways that other forms of communication can’t.

It’s not only music that has the potential to boost the lives of those living with this cruel disease – art, dance, poetry and theatre can all have a positive effect.

Nicky Taylor West Yorkshire Playhouses Community Development Manager, who is involved with producing WYP's new dementia guide pictured with Bob and Frances Fulcher who have attended dementia-friendly performances. Picture Bruce Rollinson

West Yorkshire Playhouse (WYP) has taken a lead role in exploring ways of making theatre more accessible to those battling the condition. In 2014, it staged the UK’s first dementia-friendly performance with a specially-modified performance of White Christmas, which attracted more than 400 people including those with dementia as well as relatives and carers.

Last year, the Leeds theatre followed this up with dementia-friendly performances of Beryl and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which involved altering sound and lighting levels, as well as singing sessions beforehand in the case of the musicals to familiarise audiences with the show.

These performances are part of the Playhouse’s pioneering programme which works with people living with dementia and the people who support them. As well as putting on specially tailored performances they also address the potential barriers that might stop someone with dementia going to see a show, provide visual markers and quiet spaces and have additional trained staff and volunteers to help people navigate their way through the theatre.

James Brining, West Yorkshire Playhouse’s artistic director, says the programme is having a big impact. “Since adapting our first dementia- friendly performance we’ve received incredible feedback from people living with dementia and support from care organisations. This response reflects the huge impact that making performances accessible to people who face barriers to attending the theatre following a diagnosis of dementia has on health and wellbeing.”

Nicky Taylor West Yorkshire Playhouses Community Development Manager, who is involved with producing WYP's new dementia guide pictured with Bob and Frances Fulcher who have attended dementia-friendly performances. Picture Bruce Rollinson

The Playhouse’s innovative approach and impressive outreach work have been recognised with awards from the Alzheimer’s Society and National Dementia Care Awards. Its ground-breaking work continues with the launch today of a new guide advising other theatres on how best to stage performances for people living with dementia.

The guide, funded by the Baring Foundation, is available to download from its website and has been published to coincide with Dementia Awareness Week.

“Having staged a number of successful dementia-friendly performances the guide draws on our experience, consultations with people living with dementia and their supporters, and long-running work with older people,” says Brining.

The hope now is that the guide will encourage other theatres up and down the country to follow suit. “It’s a step-by-step guide for theatres and arts venues on how to put on dementia-friendly performances – from staff training and where to get funding, through to how to greet people at the front of house, to what sort of shows they put on,” says Nicky Taylor, the Playhouse’s community development manager.

“There’s already been a huge level of interest in this from the rest of the theatre industry which is very encouraging.”

Taylor has more than 20 years experience working with older people and came up with the idea of dementia-friendly performances. She points out that a trip to the theatre, which many of us take for granted, can be fraught with difficulty for someone living with dementia.

“When you have dementia everything becomes a bit of a risk and something like going to the theatre, which ordinarily they would be able to do, can become very difficult,” she says.

“There’s still a lot of stigma associated with dementia and some people might be reluctant to come to an event that is clearly for those with dementia. But by tailoring a performance to them it gives them an opportunity to take part in something they used to do. They feel part of the audience and it’s a fantastic shared experience.”

Taylor believes that engaging with the arts has far-reaching benefits for people living with the condition. “A diagnosis often leads to a loss of confidence and isolation and by making theatres accessible we are able to tackle these issues and provide enriching, meaningful experiences that reconnect people to their communities.

“We’ve found that it increases people’s happiness, their wellbeing and their confidence. It helps their concentration and music, in particular, taps into memories from long ago so it becomes a positive emotional experience in the here and now,” she says.

“Life can be mundane for people with dementia and the opportunities for positive emotional experiences can become fewer and fewer which is why going to watch a specially-tailored show can have a profound effect.”

The special performances also give carers and those with the condition the chance to enjoy respite without fear of being judged. “People told us that for days afterwards and sometimes even weeks, their mood was lifted. It’s not just the person with dementia who benefits it has a massive impact on those around them, too.”

For people like Wendy Mitchell, a Yorkshire blogger who says she is living well with dementia, it’s a way to stay connected to cultural life. “I can no longer follow storylines and many would feel it was pointless to attend a performance. After attending Chitty Chitty Bang Bang my overwhelming emotion was one of happiness.

“I enjoyed the laughter, singing of familiar songs, but most of all I enjoyed being part of the experience. I encourage all theatres to follow West Yorkshire Playhouse’s lead and allow people with dementia to continue to experience that wonderful feeling that being part of an audience can bring.”

West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Guide to Dementia Friendly Performances is available to download from from today.

Scourge that is a growing problem

Dementia describes many different brain disorders that trigger a progressive loss of brain function and, as of yet, has no cure.

It can cause memory loss, confusion and problems with speech and understanding, and is a growing health problem around the world.

In the UK, the condition is touching more and more lives – over 856,000 people now have dementia, with this figure predicted to rise to more than one million by 2025.

Numbers are rising steadily, with latest estimates suggesting that one in every 14 people aged 65 and over is affected.

According to figures published last year, 67,630 people are living with dementia in Yorkshire and the Humber, with 25,590 in West Yorkshire alone.