Dr Marian Naidoo, United Response’s dementia lead in Cornwall, introduces an innovative and imaginative new dementia care project that she is currently rolling out in the south west.

In the UK, we have seen a real change over the last couple of years in relation to raising awareness of dementia. Many new high-profile initiatives have hit the headlines and a lot of progress has been made. The focus of this progress has been on identifying people in the early stages of dementia, as well as significant increases in the funding of new research in pursuit of a cure.

These are, of course, important issues, but when you spend time with people living with dementia and their loved ones – as I have had the privilege of doing – their priority is to find the best ways to support people who are currently living with these disorders.

They would like us to focus our attention more on helping their loved ones live well with dementia, and keep improving their quality of life so that they can continue to live their lives in the way they want. And this is all happening in a climate of austerity and shrinking budgets, particularly in social care.

The benefits of creative participation for people with dementia

Over the years, I have also been involved in contributing to the ever-growing and robust evidence base on the benefits of creative participation for people living with dementia. There are now many examples of how this approach is helping to support people at home, in communities, in residential care homes and to adjust to the challenges of a hospital admission. Unfortunately, these opportunities are not available to everyone and are often provided by artists who are relying on short-term sporadic funding.

Again, over time, professionals such as myself have been bringing the positive impact of creative participation for vulnerable groups of people to the attention of funders, including the Department of Health. We have been exploring ways in which to develop a sustainable model where people living with dementia can participate in creative activities on a regular basis.

This is underpinned by an understanding of inclusional and responsive practice, relational dynamics, and the improvisational nature of engagement and of ‘being in the moment’ (mindfulness). These are all skills that are at the heart of creative practice and this is one of the reasons why artists – be they visual artists, dancers, singers, musicians, actors or craftspeople – work well in this context.

A new approach to staff development

In my work across both dementia and mental health services, I have been developing and testing a different kind of approach to staff development – one where the focus moves from what we do to how and why we do it, with a clear focus on improving practice through the use of reflective and reflexive practice, where staff hold their own practice to account. This has included working with health and social care staff effectively in the world of leadership and service improvement.

While at United Response, I have been able to work with staff in each division and, here, the focus has been on the development of innovative leadership skills in order to develop appropriate responses to each location, rather than creating a one-size-fits-all model that, in reality, fits nobody very well.

So what does that mean for Cornwall?

It means a unique opportunity to develop a programme that, at its heart, has support staff and artists working together to support people living with dementia.

The Department of Health is very interested in supporting this work and we have been given an Innovations Award to support its development, initially over a three-year period. We are right at the start of this process, and are working with a group of support staff and artists.

The team initially participated in the first part of the development programme last year, before testing their new skills at a couple of pilot sites to see if the response was positive. Feedback from the initial sessions was very positive and, following this, we have been able to begin the process of developing good local partnerships.

The project proper began in January and we currently have two half-day sessions up and running with a third in partnership with the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, starting later this month.

Early evidence of improvements

To date, participants with dementia have been able to enjoy a wide range of creative activities including story-telling, reminiscence, dance, music improvisation, drumming and all sorts of visual arts.

Dementia support staff are recording outcomes and are starting to see evidence of improvements and/or maintenance in participants’ cognition, ability to carry out day-to-day activities and engage in peer-to-peer support, and general well-being. We are also working in partnership with Falmouth University’s Academy for Innovation and Research, who will be conducting a formal external evaluation.

There is a robust governance structure in place with a small steering group who manage the day-to-day work of the project and a wider external partnership board. The partnership board includes commissioners, health partners, academics and other third sector organisations, as well as people living with dementia and their loved ones.

We are currently looking to recruit a project manager to lead the project into its next stage.

Dr Marian Naidoo, dementia lead, Cornwall.

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