“All of our art experiences are the same as they would be for anyone else. We just make some slight changes to make it more comfortable for someone living with dementia and a family member or friend.”
This month I had the pleasure of speaking to Dawn Irvine. Dawn is the Learning and Participation Coordinator at Capital Theatres for dementia-friendly projects co-funded by the Life Changes Trust. Dawn is a passionate dancer and art enthusiast. She started ballroom dancing at age 4 and taught her first class aged 17. She competed internationally and her passion for dance and the arts led her to her current role at Capital Theatres. While Dawn still teaches at Dancebase in Edinburgh, she also works full-time at the Festival Theatre, and is completing a Masters. With all her positive energy she is now working hard to create a dementia-friendly community in Edinburgh.
You are creating a dementia-friendly community at the Festival theatre. How are you doing this?
Dawn: We have made all of the changes together with members of the community. One of the changes we made was to add a silver nosing to the stairs, because without it you can’t tell where a step starts and where it ends. To make our performances more dementia-friendly we make some small changes. For example, we monitor and drop noise levels, let people come and go freely during the performance, and create quiet areas for people to relax. Interestingly, a lot of the changes that were implemented are making it a more positive experience for everyone that comes into the theatre – not just people affected by dementia!
Have you seen changes in people that have benefitted from having this friendly space and community?
Dawn: Absolutely. I recently met a man who came with his wife and mum, who has mid-stage dementia to one of our tea parties. His mum had a wonderful afternoon. You could really see she was enjoying it. There was live music, she was singing along, she was actively engaged in her seat with her hands in terms of expression.
Her son was amazed at how engaged she was, but also worried that she would forget about it straight away. But later that week I received an email from his wife, who shared that his mum had remembered the tea party and was excited to go again. The fact that she remembered the last tea party was massive for them. They came along to the next one and she had a fantastic time again. We are creating something where people are not only living in the moment right there and then but they also have the lasting memory of it.
Absolutely, we know that when you have a positive emotional experience you remember it better. You might not remember all the details of what happened, but you will remember how it felt and that you had a great time. You can really see that with the arts, the theatre, music.
Dawn: Yes, especially with music! At our tea parties we have live music, and you can really see how people love to engage with it. Recently, we had a gentleman come along who for most of the afternoon didn’t really engage with anyone. But then we started talking about music, and he said the words ‘Dean Martin’. I asked him if he liked Dean Martin, and when he agreed I opened the Spotify app on my phone and played some Dean Martin songs. The transformation was amazing! Within minutes he was singing. His flow of speech wasn’t brilliant, but he could sing along to this Dean Martin song in absolute flow and pitch. It was just lovely!
What a wonderful example of how powerful music can be! Based on all of your experience do you have any advice for families affected by dementia?
Dawn: This is all very personal, and it’s not me giving any kind of medical advice. But I think we need to remember to live in the moment. Two people may watch the same performance or listen to the same band but their experiences are always going to be entirely different. And whoever it is just let them experience it in whatever way that they need. If they need to throw their hands in the air, that’s fine! Don’t ever feel that you have to say ‘Calm down, keep your arms down’. You might not feel that you need to gesticulate, but it’s about the way that we’re enjoying it right in that moment.
I think that’s incredibly important. Part of it comes back to creating a dementia-friendly community, or just a community in general that’s accepting of people being different.
Dawn: That’s what I think is so good about having a dementia-friendly community within the Theatre. It’s about raising awareness and normalising. Dementia is affecting more and more people. There’s a good chance that you know somebody in your circle of family and friends that has dementia. So this kind of environment is just essential.
Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure to speak to you and learn more about your work at the Festival Theatre!
Find out more about the work being done at the Festival theatre here and look out for events in the CogniCare app.