Living with Dementia, a themed study day.

A whole cohort of nursing students (290) from the University of Leeds experienced a dementia themed learning day on November 24th 2016. This involved two separate components – a key lecture (AM) and a theatre performance (PM) at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room   in Leeds.

The key lecture introduced students to the personal experience of various family members when one of them develops dementia. This was complemented by a theatre performance by the Az2B Theatre Company.  Their play Grandma Remember Me? was created in 2012 with support from the Arts Council, FEAST and The Works. It has toured across the UK including performances at award-winning theatre The Drum (Birmingham), The Houses of Parliament and a range of theatres and Universities in the North of England. The play is written from the perspective of a young child, Lilly, whose Grandma develops Alzheimer’s. It explores their changing relationship from Lilly’s initial recognition that there is something wrong with her Grandma, through the unfolding challenges and final acceptance and understanding of the disease. The play raises awareness and understanding of Alzheimer’s Disease, supports early intervention, the importance of memories and relationships within our lives and how to keep and treasure them. It shows how it is possible to “live well” with dementia. It is a piece of high quality theatre; very powerful, realistic and deeply moving.

This learning day generated a lot of thoughts about the experiences of those affected by dementia. The creative use of a theatre play appeared to engage learners on an emotional level which helped to enhance their awareness and understanding of the personal journey with dementia. This promotes learning from an innovative and creative base as opposed to the more traditional didactic approach, geared more towards cognitive as opposed to emotional change. The decision to use a theatre performance approach arose out of my PhD work which was focused upon student learning through engagement with a range of first-person narratives. This is where learners are more directly engaged with the internal world of those experiencing mental health difficulties and involved with many different types of media..

Having seen the theatre group perform this play I felt very moved and inspired by the strength of their performance and felt it would be an excellent resource for healthcare students. The logistics of arranging this proved very difficult, having to secure funding as well as an appropriate location for the performance. The locations initially reviewed were either too small, too expensive or inappropriate for this type of performance. I was delighted therefore when I found the wonderful Howard Assembly Rooms in the heart of Leeds. This was enabled through the relationship agreement between opera North and the University of Leeds.

Feedback from students attending the event included:

This feedback very clearly illustrates the potency and value of such creative learning ventures in generating emotional impact and developing personal understanding. I would certainly consider using such approaches again as well as experimenting with other media formats. This I feel fosters positive attitudinal change helping learners to not only become more aware of what others are experiencing but also more ‘tuned in’ to their personal narrative – what if feels like to live with dementia. This can only be beneficial for the development of caring empathic practitioners.

Gary Morris

Programme leader BSc (hons) Nursing (Mental Health)

University of Leeds


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