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Creativity and dementia

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arts and theatre, creative writing

Setting out to write a blog post about creativity begins as a rather meta process: a piece of creative writing on what it might mean to be creative. It’s easy to be seduced by the Romantic idea of creativity as being ‘lost in the moment’. Of a revelation sweeping in, sometimes in the most unlikely time and place, and the artist in thrall, playing conduit to a tide of creative power. Captive to their own momentum and ‘flow’, conducted by a spiritual muse, the artist rides the wave, unaware of anything other than their words, notes or brush strokes. (Needless to say, I am not in the blissful throes of any such force writing this.)

Our language for describing creativity safeguards this notion of it as something lofty and unattainable. We talk about inspiration ‘striking’, as if hurled as a lightning bolt gift from Olympus. Hand delivered by Hermes. Sponsored by Zeus. Esteeming the creative process in this way elevates it, presupposes it is out of reach to all but a few gifted individuals with artistic credentials, able to host dialogue with the stars. However, this isn’t true. We all have the potential to be creative. Expression is not the sole preserve of painters, or poets or choreographers. And who are these people anyway? Are these titles self-proclaimed, defined by an industry? Earned through publication, curation or payment? We can all produce art. Creativity is surely a democratic leveller across the human experience – whether cave paintings on a craggy rock, wobbly crayon lines displayed proudly on a kitchen fridge, or a Turner prize winner hanging in the Tate. Neither is creativity limited purely to the arts. Science, technology and business are all disciplines similarly capable of innovation and illumination. Creativity should be drawn as a universal possibility, achievable by all people. And for that matter, animals too. The tool use displayed by dolphins, or an ant’s flare for navigation, each reveal an impressive capacity for ingenuity and imagination.

So why does any of this matter? What’s the link between Greek gods and dementia? Increasingly, there is traction for the recognition that the arts, and arts interventions, can have a meaningful effect on our health and wellbeing – that the arts can harness a unique and healing impact unlike any medicine. As a trained NHS manager, and singer, turned PhD student in dementia research, with a literature degree, I am truly excited by the potential of merging arts and health. The therapeutic benefit of the arts in this context is interwoven with questions about creativity.

Enabling people with dementia to be creative provides stimulation, and allows them to actively reclaim their identity, reassert their own agency and explore their sense of self. In turn, this helps them to connect with others – at a time when communication might ordinarily be difficult. Such creativity could be experienced passively, as part of an audience, or through participation – with no pressure on output or aesthetics. Though people with dementia are equally capable of producing art that is high quality and beautiful, there is as much merit and value in the creative process as there is in any product of it. The fleeting presence of the moment is critical for people with dementia, and the glow of creativity can be an original way of engaging and drawing them to it. Indeed, some findings suggest that cognitive decline can actually enhance existing abilities to create, or certainly intensify an appetite to consume art, particularly music. Even as the ageing brain deteriorates, it maintains plasticity and an ability to adapt. 

Above all, most simply, creativity can provide entertainment, enjoyment and fun. This right to pleasure, and quality of life, is too often overlooked as a luxury in a health and care system doing its best under extreme circumstances. The irony of course, is that the arts offer a low cost, easily implementable solution to some of its challenges. A bit of creativity in decision-making processes could perhaps help us to inject some colour, sound and movement into the lives of those living with dementia. Being creative is about thinking outside the box. And we’re all capable of doing that. 

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