People often tell me they have tried to plan engaging activities when they are visiting someone who is living with dementia, but for one reason or another things hadn’t always gone “to plan”. Although it’s easy to become disheartened, rather than abandoning all goals, I would suggest that committing to spending unhurried time with a person is a possible alternative goal, instead of hoping to achieve a specific creative arts outcome. That said, if an aspect of the time together results in some kind of creative tangible outcome, whether this is a finished puzzle, a stack of pancakes or a collection of leaf rubbings, then all the better.

When I am preparing to visit a person who is living with dementia, and during the visit itself, I try to think about the following INGREDIENTS:

Ideas and ingredients over a plan. Before spending time with someone who is living with dementia, prepare a number of activities and talking points. This might be anything from a card game or a simple recipe to follow, to something from a charity shop bought on the way to the home visit. Some of my best talking points have resulted from inexpensive impulse buys picked up on the way to see someone.

Notice how a person is that day. Are they in high spirits, a bit low, or withdrawn? It’s all very well turning up ready to embark on a creative project, but if someone isn’t in the mood or is anxious about something, they may value a chat and a cuppa over a collage.

Go with the flow, and be in the moment. Is a planned activity taking longer than you thought? Maybe the shells you brought along have sparked memories of holidays by the seaside, and now you are singing holiday songs. You might not have planned this, but why not go with the flow. Or maybe the puzzle you brought wasn’t received as well as you’d hoped, and you’re now watching the birds on the bird table and chatting about the seasons.

Risk assess, not only what could go wrong but what could go right. A positive risk assessment considers all the possible benefits of taking a risk. For example, if it’s cold but the sun is shining then going out for a walk might be a welcome suggestion, even if it wasn’t planned. Make sure you are both wrapped up warm, and take care if the ground is wet. You can also look forward to having a hot drink and a biscuit when you get back.

Environmental clues. As well as reading a person’s mood, look around their home environment for clues as to how they might be that day. Is paperwork scattered everywhere where usually their home is tidy, or is there a big pile of washing up which isn’t usually there? Clues in a person’s home environment often give an insight into their wellbeing even if they say they are “fine”.

Distractions may include background noise like traffic outside, the radio, or other people. If someone is finding it difficult to concentrate, try a few activities that don’t require a long attention span. If you are reading together for example, a collection of quotes or short poems may work better than a chapter of a book.

I wonder? Rather than asking a person living with dementia “do you remember?” which might put pressure on a person to “get it right” try to use language of curiosity. Invitations like “I wonder” or “Tell me about…” have far less scope for creating anxiety for someone who has memory problems.

Energy levels. Rather than ploughing on at the same pace, notice how the person you are spending time with is in terms of energy levels. Are they flagging, restless, or tired? Sometimes sitting in companionable silence is welcome. Maybe listen to some restful music together, or music that the person you are spending time with particularly enjoys.

Nature offers a lot of opportunity for therapeutic activity. While there is no substitute for getting a breath of fresh air and being outdoors, if it isn’t easy for someone to get out and about, there are plenty of ways to brings the outdoors in. Watering houseplants, arranging fresh flowers, or even looking at a collection of seasonal leaves picked up on your way to visit someone can all stimulate discussion as well as the senses. Why not try some leaf rubbings.

Together. Rather than doing something for a person living with dementia, why not do it together. Whether it is making a cup of tea, folding laundry, or sorting through a stack of postcards, gently offer the support that someone might need to really flourish and be their best self. Think about tasks that will set someone up to succeed, rather than to fail.

See the person. No two people experience dementia in the same way, and everyone has good days and bad days, whether or not they are living with dementia. What matters to a person? What are their strengths and the things that they love? Are they an expert on fishing or stamp collecting? Maybe they love talking about their cat, or a particular holiday they used to go on.
The more time you spend with someone, the more you will know what ingredients make for unhurried, quality time together. What ingredients do you find helpful?

Charlotte Overton-Hart // Story Chaplain is a social enterprise made up of a collection of creative arts projects for people who are living with dementia, and their carers. Visit http://www.storychaplain.com/ for more information.