Michael Eades: Bloomsbury Festival in a Box – Engaging Socially Isolated People with Dementia

Dementia has been in the news in a big way over the past week. Tuesday the 11th of December saw the first ever G8 Dementia Summit opening in London, with a headline grabbing promise from David Cameron to double funding for dementia research by 2025. This follows similar promises of urgent action on dementia put forward last year in the Prime Minister’s Challenge on Dementia, which in fact promises (rather more generously) to ‘[m]ore than double […] overall funding for dementia research to over 66m by 2015’.

Dementia, its treatment, prevention, and (one day, we might hope) ‘cure’, has shot up the national agenda over the last few years. In the process, a discourse has developed around the topic which—as is so often the case with discussions of culture in the public sphere—has drawn upon largely economic measures of value. A language of costs, budgets, investments and returns has shaped the media headlines over the past week, matching the immensity of the social ‘problem’ of dementia with talk of eye-wateringly (and eye-catchingly) huge sums of money.

As part of the Cultural Value Project, our research has a stake in these discourses. From July onwards we have been working on an initiative entitled ‘Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia’. On a basic level, this project aims to take a peripatetic version of the Bloomsbury Festival—a community focussed arts festival in the heart of London—out to local residents unable to leave their homes and engage with it directly. Specifically, we have been working closely with Age UK Camden’s Dementia Befriending Service, and with the Faculty of Brain Sciences at University College London, to develop and analyse a cultural outreach for those living with dementia.

The idea here is to offer a chance for such people to engage not just in the reception, but in the collaborative creation of cultural experience. Working with Age UK Camden, and with a pool of Bloomsbury Festival artists, we have initiated a programme of weekly visits that take a number of specially designed Festival Boxes out to people’s homes. Each weekly visit comprises a short cultural activity designed to prompt reminiscence—singing, painting, ceramics work, a poetry recital or writing workshop—followed by a short narrative interview reflecting on the experience. Visits are audio-recorded, and a quantitative single-question happiness measure is also taken at the beginning and close of each session. All artists and researchers also keep research journals reflecting on their experience.

Over the course of the project, each of these Festival Boxes has developed into a unique cultural experience. They have become a personalised ‘archive of engagement’ for each participant, and this has allowed us to respond sensitively to the participants’ needs, and to focus on what Tom Kitwood (1997) has famously described as ‘the personhood of people with dementia’. The Festival in a Box project has therefore developed opportunities for reminiscence and narrative storytelling, but also offered an opportunity for analysing the core value of cultural experience itself. By working with participants who, as a result of their memory loss, tend to experience cultural engagement ‘in the moment’, within a disordered narrative present, we have been able to gather valuable material on the affective experience of culture amongst a traditionally ‘hard to reach’ population.

The project is now moving towards its concluding stages, in which the transcribed data gathered from our visits will be analysed via a series of close textual readings across our research team. As well as offering valuable research data, this project will also provide an opportunity for reflecting upon the ‘value’ of socially isolated people within a ‘cultural’ context. It will provide a means through which—we hope—to reintegrate the stories of those living with dementia into the broader narrative of the Bloomsbury Festival, of Camden, and of London itself.

Reflections on the course of the research so far can be found on the dedicated project blog: http://blogs.sas.ac.uk/category/bloomsbury-festival-in-a-box/

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