Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.

About Kate Murray

Kate Murray is a freelance writer and editor, specialising in social affairs and housing. She is the ex-editor of Inside Housing magazine and edits the HQN (Housing Quality Network) governance magazine, The Governor.
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