A (way) with words

Photo Roswitha Chesher
Photo Roswitha Chesher

The academic request for information about ‘arts interventions for people with dementia’ pings into my inbox; a report on my desk celebrates the role of the ‘arts in care settings.’ The mantra ‘evidence, evidence, evidence’ rings like tinnitus my ear. If you pause and listen quietly you can almost hear the silos being built.

The American dance artist Liz Lerman has written eloquently about the fragmentation that she experienced as a young graduate dance student trying to balance work as a professional dance artist with work in older people’s centres:

“Keep one foot in the professional world and one in the community”, I would say. “I am not fragmented. I live like this because the world is fragmented. I am just being the whole person that I want to be”

To speak of intervening with art in the lives of older people could suggest that we arrive with something extraneous and transmogrified, something to be popped into a pillbox and taken on Tuesday afternoons.

Of course art has a role but when Shakespeare spoke about the poet’s pen giving ‘to airy nothing a local habitation and a name’ I don’t think he would have imagined it to be quite like this.

In engaging with the vulnerability of others we are constantly working with ‘the form of things unknown’. I guess the instinct is to go for the sticky labeled options: the vulnerability of people who have dementia contains the potential of our own vulnerability so hopefully we think that the packaging will protect us. It places us apart from rather than apart of. It reduces the fear of contagion.

Maybe as artists we need to have the courage to continue to sit balancing on the edges of things, to stay with the unknown for just a little bit longer and collectively uncover the new ways of doing. Then perhaps the new collections of words will tumble into view.

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