Art and dementia during COVID-19

Content originally from UK Research and Innovation

Hands holding brain with puzzle paper cutout

Credit: ThitareeSarmkasat/Getty Images

With funding from UKRI, a company is using digital technology to help older people living with dementia access art during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the UK, dementia accounts for 40% of acute medical admissions in people over the age of 70.

Research shows that access to art, culture and heritage can improve brain plasticity and delay onset of symptoms.

Dementia, COVID-19 and digital

Victoria Burnip and her husband Richard set up Unforgettable Experiences in 2017. Before they met, Richard survived a traumatic brain injury and had received arts therapy as part of his recovery. Victoria had worked as interim chief executive for Age UK and cared for her grandmother who had vascular dementia.

Originally, Victoria intended to set up a company that would help older people get out to art and cultural institutions. But when COVID-19 hit, those institutions closed and she realised that older people with dementia would be at greater risk of social isolation.

Victoria believed she could create a completely digital experience, and in August 2020, they received a COVID Fast Response grant from the UKRI Healthy Ageing Challenge.

Personalised care and support

Unforgettable Experiences provides personalised care and technical support to help older people take part in live, interactive artistic sessions online.

Co-founder Victoria says:

The sessions are delivered by artists in nine disciplines – from photography and creative writing to history and music – and are based on cognitive stimulation therapy.

The aim is to support older people with mental health issues, dementia and neurological conditions, as well as their carers.

Building the programme

The company developed a pilot programme with help from:

They also had help from a couple living with dementia and their carers and Richard gave his perspective on brain trauma.

Victoria adds:

We selected nine artists from around 40 applications. All were chosen for their experience of working with people who have dementia.

The six-week pilot programme was split into two one-hour sessions a week and run using off-the-shelf video conferencing tools.

Groups were kept small – between five and eight participants. While our pilot ran for six weeks, older people can access our services for as long as they want.

Memory-prompts

The programme enables participants to choose their preferred discipline, and sessions are designed to interact with everyday experiences or prompt memories.

Victoria explains:

For example, on the songwriting course, participants explore the art of listening to music, writing lyrics, using chords and melodies and they write their own song using a memory, loved ones or passion as inspiration.

COVID-19 and meaningful impact

With the COVID-19 pandemic restricting the interactions that can take place, creating meaningful impact has been a huge part of this project.

Victoria says:

Getting the balance right between human interaction and the technology itself has been one of our biggest challenges.

People are lonely and sometimes they just want to talk, so our Digital Activity Buddies have provided befriending support as well as technical help.

Meanwhile, feedback from participants shows just how much of an impact the company is having. For example, Janet’s father Peter took part in song writing sessions. She said that after one session he chose to play the keyboard without prompting…during COVID-19, it has provided a social outlet for him, which he otherwise wouldn’t have had due to the current restrictions.

Next steps

To date, 70 older people have participated in the pilot. While the pilot began in Darlington, it has since extended its reach, with people from across the northeast of England taking part. Victoria has big plans for the future.

Victoria says:

We are planning to launch a paid-for service for older people and their families, using a weekly subscription model.

We’re also hoping to pursue contracts with NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups and Adult Social Care commissioners (PDF, 2147KB). I’ve set us some ambitious targets and would love to be working with 1,000 people online in the next couple of years.