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What’s Wrong with The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes

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The restaurant that makes mistakes

(C4, Wednesday 12 and 19th June, 2019, 9pm, 60 mins)

There are fundamental errors that make this programme bad for people with dementia and those who care about them. The idea is that people of working age who have dementia are ‘on the scrapheap’, but they could work if only their own lack of confidence, public attitudes and employers’ expectations could be changed. What will change these things is an ‘experiment’: set up a restaurant open to the public, put people with dementia to work there, and invite some celebrities to model destigmatising attitudes. It’s been done in Japan, so it will surely be a success in Bristol.

According to the online blurb, among the 14 participants are “Jacqui, a lawyer who has stopped working since her diagnosis, and who relishes the challenge and sense of purpose the project has put back into her life. Another participant, Steven, is glad of the opportunity to show others how able and willing he is to make a positive contribution through work, and to fight the impression that those with dementia are unable to remain valuable members of society.” “What could possibly go wrong?” asks one of the volunteers. 

I’ve only watched 1½ episodes of this programme, but I fear that is it likely to fall short in its mission to revolutionise thinking about ‘young onset’ dementia. This is because, from the outset, it presents people with dementia in a negative way. 

The narrative explains the impairments that they have - that is necessary information. But the viewer also follows them into a mock clinical consultation where they undergo tests for memory problems. Their failures here are immortalised for them to watch again and again.

The distribution of jobs in the restaurant seems to ensure that the least disabled volunteers do the food prep, while those whose problems cause the greatest social difficulties are front of house.  I didn’t find it entertaining at all to see Roger and Jacqui trying to perform roles that they were basically unable to do.  The programme then focused patronisingly on their small successes as if these were going to change their lives. But no employer would risk taking on Jacqui or Roger in a restaurant setting.

We all want people with dementia to be free to work if they so wish. But, like other disabled people, those with dementia are restricted in what they can do.  Employment is made more difficult for them by the progressive nature of dementia. A job therefore needs to be tailored to abilities, and adequate support provided. There was no acknowledgement of this obvious fact.

Complex, language-based jobs quickly become unsustainable in dementia, but a person who is willing to accept less skilled, lower-paid work can be placed. The reason why the programme’s participants are not working may have less to do with societal attitudes than with financial disincentives, if the wages are lower than the social security benefit entitlement.

Patronising and shaming people with dementia is not going to improve their self-esteem in the longer-term.  And objectifying people with dementia is all too easy.  At one point, the restauranteur asks a volunteer ‘What are we going to do with Jacqui?’ when Jacqui is standing in front of him. 

Of course people are thrilled by the exhilaration of starting a restaurant and the buzz of making a TV programme. But how will participants feel when they are left with the recorded reminder of their own shocking decline?  What will they do with the knowledge that everyone who knows them will have watched their mistakes?  Peter sheds tears when asked to write an email – something he stopped doing years ago.  This is interpreted as triggering an unhappy memory, but I think they are tears of humiliation.

There are some valuable messages contained in the interviews, such as it’s important to have a purpose in life, and people with dementia are valuable. But actions speak louder than words, and these messages are negated by what the programme shows us: the exploitation of vulnerable people for entertainment.  What’s wrong with this programme is that nothing can justify the shaming, objectification and humiliation of volunteers in The Restaurant That Makes Mistakes.

Justine Schneider

Professor of Mental Health and Social Care

University of Nottingham


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Objectifying indeed

I second your trenchant comment here, Justine. My feeling is that, although this kind of TV show (perhaps the word 'show' says it all) is to some extent well-meaning, it is ultimately driven by the need to entertain viewers rather than any genuine aspiration to raise their awareness in a sensitive and considered way. The use of celebrities, for instance, is a sure tell tale sign: celebs will always pull in the viewers.

I'm all in favour of awareness raising as a means of helping us to understand an extremely complex phenomenon such as dementia, but I fear that this kind of programme (show) runs the risk of further stigmatisting the syndrome rather than understanding it.  



Working with the media

Hi Justine, I also have reservations about these kinds of programmes which seek to combine "science" with some social reality. I do worry that we are all becoming too familar with peering into the vulnerabilities of lives.

Compassionate, hopeful and meaningful care happens beyond the glare of cameras. What happens when the cameras leave and the viewers forget?

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