Photograph of dusk over a bay with calm waters, surrounded by mountains

The quest for a beautiful sunset: Living with dementia in a care home

Written by Dr Gill Windle, Professor of Ageing and Dementia Research, Bangor University.

In the UK, estimates suggest seventy per cent of people living in residential care homes have a dementia or severe memory problems (e.g., Alzheimer’s Society 2018). The provision of specialist dementia care is now a necessary focus of the care home sector.

At this point, think about your own lives – your home, the things you like and value there – the comfy sofa, your favourite books and music, your pets, your power-shower. You may be married, have children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews. You may have travelled the world, enjoyed socialising, having a few drinks in the garden on a sunny weekend. You always appreciate a beautiful sunset. You get the picture.

For the person living with dementia in a care home (which could be you in the future), this life - the former connections with all your friends and family who know you well - is now largely replaced by care staff. You are now dependent upon people who do not know you and your life history. You are in a strange environment. Your comfy sofa has gone. You might even have to share a room. You may not be able to communicate very well. You can’t convey your need to appreciate a beautiful sunset.

Now think about yourself as someone working in a care home. You face many conflicting pressures involved in delivering day-to-day care. This is often described as ‘task-focussed’, meaning you are busy helping people to get out of bed, to get washed and dressed, to eat and drink. Despite best intentions, there is often limited scope for you to engage in meaningful activities with the people you care for, or you are unsure of how to do this.

Providing quality care requires a high level skills which you may not yet have, or you have worked in dementia care for a number of years, but at times are unsure of whether you are doing ‘the right thing’. The training you receive may just cover the basics, such as manual handling and safeguarding. You may not consider yourself to be ‘academic’, or indeed English may be your second language, and so formal education is challenging. You don’t know that the person living with dementia is behaving the way they are because they are desperate to see another beautiful sunset.

Against this background, how can care staff better understand the people they care for and enhance their care skills for supporting communication?

Our project ‘Creative Conversations’ examines the potential of the arts as a tool for dementia care staff development. We decided to do this because we know that when staff have taken part in arts activities for people living with dementia, although they are not the target of the activity, they often report deeper understanding of the people they care for. We want everyone to appreciate a beautiful sunset.

Before moving on to the next step, where you will learn more about the Creative Conversations programme, take a moment to think about the day-to-day things, however small they may be, that you value. These may be things that you usually don’t tell anyone else about. Also think about your loved ones, the people you may live with, or your nearest friends. What do they value?

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This article is from the free online course:

Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

UCL (University College London)