A partnership between the Alzheimer’s Society and Hepworth Gallery is helping people with dementia and their carer to enjoy arts together. Laura Reid reports.
When Natalie Casson began attending a dementia-friendly arts session with her parents, it was the first time that her father had ever been in a room with other carers.
“I remember one lady with her husband was saying he had been really stubborn this morning, he wouldn’t get washed and showered and my dad realised, oh right, this is happening to other people. It’s not the case that everybody is sat around talking about problems but they are there if you do want to speak to someone.”
Natalie, whose mum Sara Hale has dementia, has been taking part in the Creative Cafe workshops at The Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield for several months.
The artist-led sessions invite people living with dementia, their carers, friends and family to “talk, make and imagine” by taking part in creative activities together, inspired by the gallery’s exhibitions and art collection.
For Natalie, it is a real family affair. She typically attends the monthly session with her mother, a former journalist who was diagnosed eight years ago at the age of 59, as well as her father and her 18-month old niece.
“It’s the only group dad, as a primary carer, will come to that is a dementia group...Being in an inclusive community, with help there if we need it and where dad can talk to somebody else if he needs it, even just with other people going through a similar thing is comforting.
“My dad won’t go to anything else. He’s adamant he won’t go to a support group and he doesn’t want to moan about mum or see people moping about. The focus here is on doing the art, on a structured activity.”
A typical session can include circle games, movement activities, songs and a chance to make artwork, as well as a look at some of the gallery’s current collections.
“There’s loads of things that happen on a physiological level when people are engaged and having fun,” explains Bryony Pritchard, one of the artists who runs the sessions, with the support of Alzheimer’s Society volunteers .
”Lots of happy hormones are released. It might be that people don’t have a memory of what they made or why they made it but that feeling of being happy, that has positive impacts on building immunity, improving sleep, improving appetite. All these biological benefits happen when we’re gathering together and connecting with other people.
“My favourite thing is when you hear a carer say ‘I never thought she could do that’ or ‘I thought that wasn’t possible anymore’. I like it when there’s surprises because carers are in the grind of it and to be able to have that moment of stepping back and being surprised by loved ones is really nice and just lifts them.
“This might be the only time in their week they get to see their loved ones in a really positive way. It’s really hard going as a carer, it can really affect mental health so I’m really proud of these sessions because they give everybody an opportunity to try something new and explore something different together.
“All the activities are about making together and ensuring the carers get to make something as well. It’s not about them facilitating their loves ones’ creativity, it’s about everybody having a chance to make.”
The sessions, which first began in April, are part of The Hepworth’s work with the Alzheimer’s Society to create a more dementia-friendly gallery. The partnership started around 18 months ago, when The Hepworth obtained a grant to engage carers of people with dementia in art, as Nicola Freeman, its director of learning and engagement explains.
“The learning team here spend a lot of time out in communities and talking to people. What came out of that was that there was an obvious need for support for carers. They have a very difficult job and it sometimes goes under the radar. It was identified that we could potentially do something to help.”
In initial discussions, it was suggested that carers might be reluctant to come without their loved one or may struggle to take time out. And so the idea soon grew to become more inclusive - sessions not just for carers, but for those with dementia too.
They are open to people across West Yorkshire. Some come every month, others dip in and out but up to eight families attend each time.
“We love it,” says Natalie, who lives in Emley. “It’s been so welcoming. I find particularly that you can just relax a bit.” Turning to her mother, she adds: “It doesn’t matter if you’re chatting away does it?
“It’s quite cruel really, my mum being a journalist, that she lost communication quite early. Her spelling started to go - you want to communicate don’t you? But it doesn’t always make sense.
“But everybody here smiles and talks to her and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make any sense what she’s saying in return.
“Often, if you’re out and about, that’s something you worry about, people not understanding...I love the gallery anyway and this group just feels really creative and accepting.”
The partnership goes beyond just the sessions. The Hepworth has now developed reminiscence boxes for use in the gallery, has been looking at how to present information about exhibitions in a more playful and tactile way and has run creative consultations with carers about what they need and how it can better support them and their loved ones.
“It’s so important that we’re inclusive as a gallery,” Nicola says. “We’re really passionate about making sure we’re welcoming and understanding the needs of our audiences.”
The gallery’s new garden has been designed to be accessible for all to experience both art and nature and its front of house staff have had dementia training, something Neil Courtman, the Alzheimer’s Society service manager for Wakefield, says is particularly important.
“It can help people to feel confident that when they walk through the doors, somebody has a better understanding of what their needs might be or what the needs of the person they’re caring for might be and that is likely to help them feel that it is a welcoming place.”
“If you have a resource here that’s not accessible, then you’ve got a whole section of the community that in a sense are being excluded from experiences others can have,” he adds.
“But also, there is starting to be more and more evidence around how beneficial certain types of interaction, including the arts, are for wellbeing - for anybody, but particularly around long-term conditions.”
The key for both partners is to make the gallery as accessible as possible for those with dementia and their families.
“It feels like it’s theirs and that’s the whole point,” says Neil. “It’s about making it feel as much their place and as accessible and belonging to them as to anyone else.”
To find dementia-friendly social and support groups in Yorkshire, visit www.alzheimers.org.uk