It is important to recognise the value that people attached to these objects, by using the imagination and through personal association toward fulfilling some basic human need. As a small-scale study it demonstrated improvements in mood and the quality of life for people with dementia, and also improved the quality of social interactions between patents, care staff and families. This project brings to light the great deal of immediate work that can be done to enrich the lives of those experiencing Dementia.
Through this programme some of the fear and stigma attached to the disease has been eased, by engaging with these people as they are in the present moment, rather than looking to the future for a cure, or to the past. What has also been witnessed is that no matter how much the cognition of those experiencing dementia has been diminished, building their imaginative capacity through being fully engaged in an activity vitally increases well-being. Imagination, improvisation and playfulness were all evident through engagement with these objects in individuals who during the activity became free of some of their symptoms.
Anne Davis Basting concludes in her book Forget Memory that ‘we need research that convinces policy makers that training care partners to foster meaningful moments with people with dementia might work better than pills, and without side affects’.16 So much of research regarding mental health issues is about finding a cure and finding it fast, so it tends to be pharmacological approaches that are considered. Large-scale studies with healthy older adults have shown that being involved with arts reduces depression and improves self-esteem, social support and stabilises general health, so we can safely assume that the effects on those experiencing dementia would not be greatly dissimilar. It is clear that major investment is needed to develop, understand and measure the benefits of these non-pharmacological and therapeutic approaches within the context of Dementia. Anne Crabtree Greater Manchester Arts & Health Network Coordinator, speaking at the North West Arts and Health Network Event on Dementia and Imagination exposed the future potential for work when responding to this progressing project. She reveals,
‘I think these objects are really beautiful and you want to handle them and I am so pleased that they are not in a Museum or an Art Gallery. I’m very interested in the actual changes that happen to those people while they handle them. When you’re involved in an arts activity you get really absorbed, there are clinical things that happen in terms of a drop in blood pressure, you start to relax, and you start getting into this ebb and flow of having an exchange and a relationship with the object. Therefore, I’m interested in this in terms of dementia, to see where doing some of these things in the present can actually circumnavigate some of the damage that has happened to the brain. I don’t know enough medically to explain what may be happening, but I do know that the brain can make new left/right brain connections and rewire itself around all kinds of brain injuries. I’m interested in how this can contribute to keeping people well whether they are consciously aware of it or not.’17
However much cynicism may surround it I argue that being engaged in something that is a challenging activity, that presents intellectual stimulation and provides the opportunity for shared experiences and social interaction, increases well being through positive changes to mood, and I speculate may actively slow down the process of dementia in combination with other support. The feedback received in response to this study have been gratifying and is suggestive of the enormous potential to improve the lives of individuals experiencing Alzheimer’s and their caregivers. I would recommend that a longer-term study could expand upon these qualitative findings and have positive consequences in the development of designed interventions to promote meaningful human interaction.
16. Davis Basting, A. Forget Memory.(2009) p164
17.Crabtree. A. North West Arts and Health Network Event on Dementia and Imagination. [Network event] MMU. 27 May 2010.