I recently read a very moving and interesting article in The Observer of 16/7/2017 by Nicci Gerrard called “Say it with a picture or a song”. It resonated with me for certain reasons, primarily because of the work we do here with adults with incapacity and our involvement with Project Ability Glasgow, an art project creating opportunities for people with disabilities and mental health issues.
As Nicci Gerrard explains “A few weeks ago turning on the radio, I hear a voice saying that creative writing can help wounds heal faster. Startled I turn the volume up. Volunteers were given small wounds; half were then asked to write about something distressing in their life, the other half about something mundane. The wounds of the confessional writers healed substantially more quickly. A thought or a feeling is felt on the skin. Our minds, which have the power over our bodies, are in our bodies and are our bodies: we cannot separate the two. Words, self expression, can tangibly help pain and suffering. Art can be medicine for body and soul”- potent words indeed.
An all party parliamentary group inquiry into the arts, health and well being has been gathering evidence over the last two years and has come to the unambiguous conclusion that the arts used appropriately by health professionals can help with some major social challenges of an aging population, long-term illness, loneliness and mental health, saving money in the health service. As Lord Howarth of Newport co-chair of the all party group said “The arts have a vital role to play for people with dementia. Research demonstrates that visual arts, music, dance, digital creativity and other cultural activities can help to delay the onset of dementia and diminish its severity. This not only makes a huge difference to many individuals but also leads to cost savings. If the onset of Alzheimer’s disease ( which accounts for 62% of dementias) could be delayed by five years, savings between 2020 and 2035 are estimated at £100bn. Those are powerful statistics, but this isn’t just about money; the arts can play a powerful role in improving the quality of life for people with dementia and for their carers”.
There are projects the length and breadth of the country in theatres, galleries, community centres hospitals and care homes. As Nicci Gerrard describes” I attended one of the monthly sessions at the Royal Academy in London where people who have been art- lovers through their life- and are art-lovers still come to talk about a particular work, led by two practicing artists. We sat in front of an enigmatic painting by John Singer Sargent and there was an air of calmness, patience and above all time and there were no wrong opinions. There are many ways of seeing. People with dementia are continually contradicted and corrected, their versions of reality denied: it’s Sunday not Friday; you’ve already eaten your breakfast; I’m your wife not your mother; anyway you are old and she is dead….In this humanising democratic space, people were encouraged to see, feel, remember and express themselves. Slowly at first they began to talk. There was a sense of language returning and of thoughts feeding off each other. They were listened to with respect and were validated.”
Nicci Gerrard also mentions in her article the film “Alive Inside”. It is a documentary which follows social worker Dan Cohen founder of the non-profit making organisation Music & Memory as he fights against a broken health care system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it. Nicci Gerrard points to an emotive example “an old man with advanced dementia sits slumped in a wheelchair. He drools; his eyes are half closed and it’s impossible to know if he is asleep or awake. A few times a day, soft food is pushed into his mouth. Then someone puts earphones on his head and suddenly the music that he loved when he was a strong young man is pouring into him. His eyes open and knowledge comes into them. His toothless mouth splits into a beatific grin. And now he is dancing in his chair, swaying. And then this man –who doesn’t speak any longer –is actually singing. The music has reached him, found him, gladdened him and brought him back to life.” The arts creating a miracle of which there should be more as we realise the wonderful benefits of the artistic world.
To find out more about Project Ability, please visit http://www.project-ability.co.uk/