Drama and storytelling use in dementia care

Art can improve quality of life and well-being by becoming a stimulating and enjoyable experience, as it can allow persons with dementia to preserve their sense of self and personal identity, to reduce the various stresses that are associated with symptoms of dementia like memory loss, co-ordination and challenges around communicating. Findings suggest that creative art therapy is effective for treatment of behavioral and emotional challenges of the disease.

Non medical approach

Drama provides an opportunity to engage with the characters, imaginatively and emotionally, with the intention of enhancing the learning experience. It has been already in medical education to facilitate non-scientific elements of medicine such as communication, social, political and spiritual issues (De le Croix et al 2011) and health education within schools (Perry et al 2002). Health and social care professionals need to have the correct knowledge and skills to care for people with dementia. Such education programs are lacking for now completely in Romania or Bulgaria, leaving staff unprepared in front of the complexity of the care needs of such patients. Using theater and storytelling for training care staff in dementia issues and also training them in using it further in their work is an innovative approach that can provide effective results in both education and also in engaging patients in social activities.

Storytelling as therapeutic tool

People with dementia find it difficult to access memories, both new and old. This memory and recall impairment begin slowly and progresses to the point where it becomes hard to recall events, names, and conversations that they would have easily remembered previously. They can become quickly frustrated with the inability to answer even the simplest questions, including “who am I” from a family member as the disease progresses. This inability to recognize family members can be especially upsetting for caregivers. Day to day tasks like dressing themselves or feeding themselves can become impossible when remembering the steps for completion becomes difficult. Sequencing is a hard thing to do for people with cognitive impairment. A study by the University of Missouri has shown improvement in people with dementia in both abilities to communicate and their effect (defined as the feeling or expression of emotion) through storytelling.

Storytelling stimulates the brain, good stories can engage seniors so that they will pay attention, empathize, and even cooperate. It is a matter of science. Apparently, a good story engages more of the brain than more rational or practical messages.

Neuroscience studies about dementia

Our brains are wired to follow a pattern and search to determine what might come next. Sometimes the brain gets overloaded and has difficulty processing the information. More areas of the brain respond when the information received is more emotional than factual. Stories illicit a multi-sensory brain response, according to neuroscientists. Stories and storytellers often use words that are easier for our brains to imagine. Each listener will glean a different emotional response and meaning to the same story based on their own ability to imagine. When the story includes a compelling character it is easier for our brains to recall the story and engage with it. It is not uncommon for stories to move us either toward or away from a concept due to the emotional response they create.

Storytelling for those with dementia has become a more widely used therapeutic tool. Often used with groups of seniors, family caregivers can use this same technique at home.

Benefits of storytelling for people with dementia

Healthcare professionals who use storytelling find that it opens older adults up to memories, encourages verbalization and promotes self-esteem. Storytelling has four main benefits:

  • It gives people who may otherwise have limited abilities a chance to communicate
  • It helps promote a positive social environment
  • It lets caregivers interact playfully and enjoyably with the person with dementia
  • It can include gestures, sounds and facial expressions into the story in whatever way the senior can

Summary: Why using drama and storytelling helps dementia people

Creative drama is adaptable to the specific needs of each client. Working through music, movement and drama can provide the opportunity to grow, develop and change in new ways. By stimulating the memory (long-term memory generally being strong) and encouraging reminiscence, the dementia sufferer becomes aware of their power of memory and their past ability to cope with different losses and challenges in life. Persons with dementia will gain an improved well-being, and also a more adapted self in front of this disease.

Using theater and storytelling, by sharing narratives about lived events and experiences at home, by family carers, can provide a way for people with dementia, along with their carers, to express themselves and socialize with others in a fun and supportive group. This is also a way to create dementia-friendly communities/institutions, provides topics of conversation and opportunities for connecting with other people.