Spiritual, Artistic and CReative Experiences in Dementia

What is SACRED?

I have been a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society for about 18 months; working in a local day centre. I have been interested in creative arts for a number of years, and have used puppets, music, Gospel illusions and poetry in worship. All of the above, and other arts such as dance, drama, play, writing can also be therapies or used in a therapeutic way.

There are, perhaps, many ways of reaching someone who has dementia; helping to restore, and rediscover, the person who is still there but may have become hidden and helping them to live well with the disease. I am certain that the creative arts is one such way, and wanted to create this blog of my thoughts and experiences.
And so, this is
Artistic and
Experiences in


Some might say that worship is impossible for people with Alzheimer’s because they may no longer have any understanding of what they are doing, of Bible passages or of the sermon. But if worship has been an important part of someone’s life, why should it not continue after a diagnosis of Dementia? Who can say that they are not still able to reach out to, or communicate with, God? Who can say that memories can’t be triggered and the person won’t find some comfort in long remembered prayers and rituals? God certainly doesn’t demand that a person has to be intelligent, wise and fully understand what is going on before they are able to talk to him. He knows everyone by name, knows what is happening to each one of us, and understands. Who can say that worship, and/or prayer, won’t be purer and even easier for someone with dementia, free as they may be from long words, arguments about church and theological matters and other distractions.
Even if someone has not had, or previously been able to profess, faith, they might still take comfort from long remembered hymns and prayers. A number of clients can join in with the words to the Lord’s Prayer, and some with the 23rd Psalm, even with no words available to them.

We have held a few short services of worship recently.

At harvest time, we talked a little about how our food is produced, crops that are grown and so on. One client lives on a farm; others like gardening or once had allotments. we talked about how God created all things, gives us good things to eat and remembered countries where they don’t have so much.
Some clients remembered previous harvest festivals they had attended, and how they sometimes helped to take the food collected to various people.

A prayer tree created for our harvest festival service.
Each leaf represents a prayer request/subject for thanksgiving suggested by the clients.
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On Remembrance day we watched some coverage on TV, and as the final poppy was laid outside the tower of London. Then, as Big Ben struck 11, we held a 2 minute silence. When the trumpet sounded ‘the last post, we switched off and held our own short short service. Some clients had identified ‘Abide with me’ as being their favourite hymn; we sang this, heard “In Flander’s fields” read by another client, heard a short talk and finished by saying the Lord’s prayer and by singing “Jerusalem”.

Artwork created for Remembrance day. We also displayed photos of clients, relatives and staff, who were in the services and fought in the war. (A couple of these are in this picture, among the poppies.)
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A diagnosis of Dementia doesn’t mean that a person’s life stops, or is over. There is a support available to help the person to live well; various activities such as “singing for the brain”, memory cafes, memory boxes, keep fit for older people, gardening and other activities to stimulate body and mind.

But as well as a body and a mind, everyone also has a spirit. Even people who aren’t Christians or wouldn’t profess to having any kind of belief, will talk about people who are keen spirited, who have a lively, spirit or one which cannot easily be broken. It is my belief that people therefore have spiritual needs – whatever they perceive them to be, and however they would express them. This applies also to people with Dementia, and it is very important that those needs don’t get overlooked. A person with Dementia who had faith, may no longer be able to express that faith, but it is doubtless still there – somewhere – and God certainly doesn’t give up on, or stop loving, them just because they may not be able to talk about their beliefs, or understand some of the finer details of their religion.

I found this when I was a volunteer in a Catholic care home. They had a short service once a month. Some were able to join in or even take an active part; others appeared to have no interest at all. Yet they often joined in with the hymns, even if they couldn’t read the words, and knew some of the liturgy by heart.

Of course, not everyone has, or had, a faith and may not relate to prayers and hymns or enjoy Bible readings. They might find that listening to music helps them to relax and be at peace, or maybe poetry, art or nature feeds their souls, or helps them to heal, or connect with themselves, or others. Sometimes it’s good for us to sit quietly and just be, even, or maybe especially, people with Dementia. So it was a little disappointing, recently, to have such a moment interrupted by someone who wanted the clients to do something instead of just sitting around listening to music. Maybe it’s because families pay to send their relatives to the centre and we feel we have to do things and produce evidence of achievement or progress. That’s understandable, but maybe, once in a while, we need to write silence or meditation, into our diaries or timetables.

More art.

Art is more than just drawing, painting and producing something which “looks like” something.

It’s not always necessary to use paper.
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This artist worked with great concentration and was very sure about the colours they wanted and how they wanted the finished piece to be. Yet normally they are quiet and don’t seem to join in many activities.
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This person was adamant they could not paint, yet covered stone after stone in strong, bright colours.
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Painting with a difference.

Yesterday a wonderful volunteer came into the day centre to do some painting with the clients.
This was no ordinary painting – it was a technique she had invented herself and which she called, “Pushing the paint”.
What you need:
A piece of glossy card/paper, (I’m sure it would be fine on matt, but might produce different results.)
Masking tape
PVA glue
Small craft spatula/glue spreader.
Poster paint.

What you do
Tape the paper onto the table, to stop it moving and to provide a border round the edge.
Put a small blob of glue in the centre of the paper.
Put different coloured paints onto the glue.
Mix the paints up slightly
Move, or push, the paint/glue mixture around the paper with the spatula, either with the edge, or using it flat.

Sounds simple, yet the results were pretty amazing.

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Some of the artwork produced in the day centre.

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Part of the day centre has become a café. The most popular name for this café, which was suggested by a client and voted on by the others, was “the garden view café”. Space has not allowed us to display the whole name, but here is some of the artwork which came from our thinking about gardens.


Tall tree

The leaves on the two trees have comments/memories/pieces of information supplied by the clients.

For the record ……

I can’t leave a discussion on music without sharing a song that was recorded by the Anchor community choir – people in Anchor care homes, some, or all, of whom may have dementia.

The song is called “See yourself”, and what I particularly like about it is that it reinforces the message of the Alzheimer’s society; namely that there is more to a person than their dementia. People with dementia are still people and have a lifetime of stories, experiences, skills and memories – what we have to do is to realise they are still there and find a way of releasing, or tapping into, them.
This applies to all older people, of course. Sometimes I think society looks at older people but doesn’t really see them. We see wrinkles and age related problems and think that this is all there is; as though that person no longer has dreams, emotions, hopes, ambitions, ideas about politics or religion or the ability to hold down a job and be a valuable member of a work force.

Anyway, before I get too carried away – the Anchor community choir:

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The power of music never ceases to amaze me.

As a child, our music lessons sometimes consisted of listening to pieces of classical music and trying to imagine what was going on; the story that was being told, or simply what the piece reminded us of.  Sometimes we would play with musical instruments and the choice of instruments reflected, or sometimes affected, moods and feelings. Music can inspire, soothe, excite or move us. The Bible tells us of a king who suffered from depression and how his mood was soothed, or lifted, when he heard a young boy playing on his harp. Quiet music may be used to help people relax, or get to sleep, certain tunes can inspire patriotism or bring back certain memories. Advertisers us rely on us associating certain jingles with their particular product, or may use current tunes, or rewrite popular songs,, to advertise their products.

I have read a few books on Music Therapy, and using music with people with learning disabilities. But I think I first began to see how effective music can be in reaching, and helping, people when I took my clarinet into a care home where I was a volunteer. There were some there who showed no interest in Bingo, or in attempts to engage them in arts and crafts, or other activities – in fact, they seemed to be asleep. Yet if I started to play a certain tune – a song they may have sung as a child, or which was popular during the war, or a well known hymn tune, they very often joined in; eyes still firmly closed yet word, if not note, perfect.

Here is a clip which illustrates how music may be effective in this way.

At the day centre, too, singing is popular. People who are unable to communicate well, or very much, can still join in with much loved songs or tap their feet to certain pieces of music.

The Alzheimer’s Society provide a service called Singing for the brain, which helps to make music accessible for people with dementia. Maybe there is such a group near you? Or maybe you could think about starting one?