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Why do the arts for people living with advanced dementia matter?

Damian Hebron explores how arts-based activities can enable in-the-moment experiences between care staff and residents within hospital wards.
I’m Head of Arts at Cambridge University Hospitals. And that’s a busy acute hospital, district general hospital with 1,100 beds. We have a large department of medicine for the elderly, a significant inpatient population of people with cognitive impairment, many of them living with a dementia. And so our work specifically in that area is about enhancing the patient environment so that it’s better for people who are spending time in hospital who are living with a dementia. We also have a very busy dance programme, which specifically targets our department of medicine for the elderly and offers dance opportunities for people living with a dementia.
One of the things that emerges from the dance sessions are moments of humanity that are recaptured, often through music, playing, and through people engaging. We’ve had great moments where people who have been silent for weeks on a hospital ward, can suddenly engage with the music. We had somebody who had been an amateur orchestral conductor who stood up and conducted a whole piece of classical music in the room. And those moments kind of shock staff because it just completely reveals a hidden part of people’s personality. One of the really interesting things has been about how it has challenged and changed staff engagement with patients. We’ve really focused on health care assistants.
And a lot of the feedback we’ve had from them has been about how it has opened up opportunities for conversations, created new ways of engaging with patients. Often, staff in hospitals, their physical engagement with patients is very much about doing things to people, washing people, lifting them. Suddenly to change that dynamic into one where it’s being led by the patient and being guided by the patient, and in response to a patient’s movement as a dancer, that’s an incredibly different dynamic. And it changes that relationship into a much more equal relationship and one of partnership. I could give a really good example of a workshop we were running on a department of medicine for the elderly ward.
There was a man in his late 70s, early 80s, who was responding really well to the music that was being played, and started to talk, and started to talk about some of the music that he really loved. And surprisingly started to talk about Adele and Sam Smith as some of his favourite music. And it completely transformed this perception of this older man with dementia into somebody who had similar tastes and passions and enthusiasms to the much younger staff. And it transformed that relationship. And often, as people start to talk about their response to music, they will start to talk about different aspects of their lives and different ways in which they respond to music. It can often be quite emotional.
But people start to share stories and start to share with each other, both staff and patients. And the whole sense of who is the patient and who is the clinician or the member of staff, completely is eliminated. And there’s a very level sort of playing field that emerges.

Damian Hebron, Head of Arts at Cambridge University Hospitals, explains how arts-based activities can enable in-the-moment experiences within the environment of a hospital ward.

This video outlines the effects that an arts-based programme can have on people living with advanced dementia, and therefore why it still matters at the later stages of a dementia journey. It also explains ways in which the arts have engaged and challenged staff in the care of their patients living with dementia, leading to a change in the patient-staff dynamic.

CREDITS We would like to thank the Cambridge University Hospital Dance Project for providing the supplementary footage for this video.
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Dementia and the Arts: Sharing Practice, Developing Understanding and Enhancing Lives

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