What is a Dementia Utopia?

Dementia and Imagination were awarded some additional funding from Connected Communities to participate in this year’s Connected Communities festival, on the theme of Utopia.

The first of three local events took place in April - titled Dementia Utopia: a creative exploration imagining our Dementia Supportive Communities.

We held two half day workshops – one in Rhyl and a second In Ruthin – bringing together year 5 and 6 school children to collaborate in making art with people living with dementia locally. The school children took part in dementia friend awareness sessions before the workshops so that they could learn more about the condition before taking part.

After the awareness session they understood that for many people with dementia there was an impact on memory, as in these sample comments from year 5 pupils:

"When people might forget things like family and friends."

"When people lose part of their memory"

"Something goes on in the brain"

"When you start to lose your memory"

"When people forget things that other people don't forget."

schoolchildren and people living with dementia exploring the potential of art

The intergenerational sessions were designed to bring together people experiencing dementia in their lives now with those who may be impacted by dementia in their future, whether through personal experience or caring for loved ones. We also thought that the imagination of young people might bring some unique insights in to some every complicated questions that we were exploring…!

There is an inherent tension in the idea of a Dementia Utopia that we hoped our events would explore. If we consider Utopia as an ideal then the Dementia Utopia is ultimately doomed, as we would inevitably imagine a place without illness. Whilst for many dementia is a debilitating and awful condition, there are stories of people finding their voice and ability to laugh, experiencing new activities and achieving things they might not have gone on to do before. If we take our version of reality, where Dementia is an everyday reality for approximately 850,000 people in the UK, we began to wonder how we might support people to be as independent as possible and to participate in the communities within which they live. This might include technologies to make people’s lives easier, changing attitudes towards the condition, and helping to foster connections.

Artist Lisa Carter helped to shape the creation of an installation called ‘Eloquent Brain, Utopian Connected Communities’. This is a collaborative interactive work consisting of drawings on envelopes, blank envelopes, wedges and floorboards. The work is monochromatic and changes and grows as people alter the composition or add their own envelope drawings to either the ‘filing’ along the right hand side of the work or the gaps in the floorboard.

The two groups brought together in the workshops took part in collaborative drawing with gentle prompts to respond to the idea of what a dementia utopia might be and might look like. The only instruction was that they couldn’t use words but should draw instead. We thought about the idea of Utopia as a no-place which then enables complete freedom to imagine anything which led us to ask: ‘What colours, textures, sights and sounds would you like to see and hear in this place?’, ‘What are your dreams and what do you believe in?, ‘What does feeling old feel like?’  ‘What is a connected community?’ and ‘Do you feel connected?’

dementia old and young work together

The sessions were lively and fun, as the groups created a growing canvas of images of their ideals for a Dementia Utopia. We also asked the groups to respond at the end of the session to two prompts: ‘Dementia is…’ and ‘Art can…’. A lot of discussion centred on dementia as ‘a nuisance’, ‘confusing and frustrating’ and ‘with us but we can work with it’. There was also a sense that art could help provide a space to get away from it for a while, to meet new people, and have a try at something new. As one person wrote, art can ‘keep the imagination flowing’.

Both workshops were recorded by a filmmaker and this piece of work is now being edited, ready to show at Somerset House in June as part of a Dementia Utopia Café, where people can try out a menu of arts activities and have a go at something new, contributing to our growing ideas on dementia, utopia and what it might mean for our communities.

by Teri Howson and Catrin Hedd Jones

Added on: 12 May 2016

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