Our project is funded by the Connected Communities programme, run by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This funding programme encourages research into the role of community, social connections and belonging for health and well-being. It also looks at the wider societal, cultural and economic benefits (for more information see Connected Communities). In this context, participatory arts/ socially engaged arts is therefore the relevant approach to use.
While we support and acknowledge the importance and efficacy of Art Therapy, the focus of this project is slightly different because the arts based activities are delivered by artists and not therapists. In the past, these two areas have been positioned against one another but more recently they have been discussed for what each practice shares with the other. They each have their own merits, particular settings and applications.
In art therapy, the artwork is a facilitation tool for particular emotions or memories. A process of discovery emerges from and through the art that is created. It is designed to help ease or support a person through a difficult time period. The therapist often works alone with one individual in a session and art therapists are trained and registered as part of a collective body of art therapists. Arts therapy can create a space which can particularly challenge difficult issues, thoughts and emotions head on. However, this is a different space to the arts groups we are creating.
‘Dementia and Imagination’ is slightly different in several ways, which is why we have concentrated on work with artists at this stage. The project focuses on individual and collective outcomes that can be observed within and beyond a therapeutic community, as a result of engaging a group of service users, carers and staff in arts activities. Our key research question is focussed on how visual arts can change behaviours and beliefs and attitudes to create dementia friendly communities.
Our particular project is not engaged with reminiscence, or using the art to express difficult emotions. It focuses on enjoying and being ‘in the moment’, being creative and making social connections. Participants attend in small groups and are encouraged towards modes of personal expression that are artistic. The process may be therapeutic in providing feelings of calm or relaxation but it is not the central aim of the project to try and stimulate particular feelings or emotions. In our work, the artists use their professional skills to inspire, and work with the creative energy of the participants.
We do have safety measures in place to support individuals should difficult feelings arise. Our project has a diverse stakeholder group who have been involved from the outset for advice and consultation in designing the project. This is just one of the safeguards we have in place, which means that we can confidently look at our research project as one that investigates wider social and cultural issues, particularly around reducing stigma and the creation of dementia friendly communities.