Being playful and experiencing joy is part of being human, but often not what comes to mind when living with dementia. ‘Listening with Your Eyes’, a workshop delivered by Nik Howden from Vamos Theatre Company, which ran as part of the Festival of Creative Learning 2019, challenged this mindset. Through a series of exercises, carried out in a reflective and whimsical way, we learnt to pay attention to the way that communication and connection with another person depends on much more than words, and to think about how that feels: the sense of loneliness and boredom that comes when another person avoids eye contact; how the touch of only a fingertip can build a relationship of trust as we are being guided along an unfamiliar path; how much meaning is held in the tone of our voice.
As a group, we were invited to let down our guard and open ourselves up to one another, as without this we cannot be playful. We tuned into each other’s movements and danced with strangers. This touched something in us which, in the busyness of life, can remain dormant: the silent dancing provoked spontaneous applause. It was simple and yet it was profound because each of us knows that we have a fundamental human need to connect with others and to be held in relationship. For people with dementia, this can be difficult in our hypercognitive culture which puts a high value on words. But we are much more than our words.
This workshop helped us to slow down, to notice, and to be present. In the UK there are 850,000 people living with dementia, 39% of whom live in care homes, places that many people fear they will spend their final years. The artist Camille Pissarro said ‘Blessed are they who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing’. Care homes are humble places yet beauty can be found there if we care to look. One workshop participant said that the thing she was going to do after the workshop was go and see her grandmother – she felt more able to do this. One of the best things about the workshop was the range of people it attracted. There were people from care homes, student nurses, medical students – all of whom already work with people with dementia. What was especially encouraging were those who came along who don’t work with people living with dementia but know them in their communities and their families and recognise the value of holding them in relationship, living well together. In the absence of a cure for dementia, or indeed old age, it is compassionate communities which foster hope. (Re) discovering the precious art of ‘listening with your eyes’ is a step towards establishing compassionate communities and seeing beauty in humble places.
Dr Julie Watson
Edinburgh Centre for Research on the Experience of Dementia / Nursing Studies