Creative approaches to working with people living with dementia



I believe in the ability and individuality of every human being and their innate wish to engage with others. In the past I have used physical theatre, improvisation, theatre clowning and the performing arts as means to create / deliver meaningful engagement, an outlet for creativity and a way of interacting for people challenged by ‘conventional’ systems of communication. In my opinion, the personality of artists wishing to work in this area is key: there is a great benefit in being playful, honest, curious, respectful, passionate and compassionate. Their given art form should be considered both a partner and a tool to forge and strengthen connections.

People living with dementia are not a homogenous group. They are individuals with different ages, backgrounds, life stories, preferences, needs, likes and dislikes. Some will be in the early stages of living with dementia. They will still be dealing with the awareness that things are starting to change. They know that their memories of people and events are disappearing, and that knowledge is frustrating and difficult. Other people will no longer remember what they have forgotten, and yet others will no longer have any words left that are comprehensible to us. They may be curling up in their chairs and beds like ferns at night.

Whatever their age and stage, people living with dementia never lose their wish to connect to others and their ability to sense and feel emotions. More than that: they are still the most qualified experts on their own lives and it is important always to face them with the utmost respect for their life experience and situation.

People living with dementia are often reduced to a diagnosis and a list of symptoms, such as word finding problems, memory loss, and so on. In all activities I recommend, instead, to focus on the person behind the illness or the label. In so doing, you will set out on an expedition to an unknown destination, with the individual human being in front of you..

The starting point is the present moment. In this present moment, nothing (or nothing very much) may happen. Time is your friend, and in this space of relaxed but heightened awareness, skilled artists and arts practitioners are able to connect with the individuals facing them.

By not jumping to conclusions or into action, everything becomes and remains possible. To make room for these possibilities, it is important to aim high and never underestimate the participant or their skills and abilities. It is essential to make the time to profoundly link to the essence of the other: this moment of shared honesty is the keystone, which supports our connection with the person opposite us. That honesty embraces both vulnerability and humanity, and it means that neither the artist nor the participant is ‘in control’, but both are equally in charge of the situation, co-creating with each other rather than being in a hierarchical relationship of teacher and participant, audience and artist.. Using the present moment to ‘notice’ each other allows artist and participant to embark on a creative journey together.

Magdalena’s profound sensitivity, analytical perspective and well-honed expertise position her as a unique, inspiring go-to resource for any artist interested in understanding effective, compassionate processes and methods for working with people with dementia and memory loss. Building on her decades of work in theatre and clowning, Magdalena has developed an innovative, accessible and versatile platform that promises to serve a variety of artists and service providers across disciplines. Above all, her vision for engagement and collaboration provides deeply inspiring motivation toward action. If there’s ever a chance to work with her, take it.

David Leventhal, Program Director, Dance for PD & Mark Morris Dance Group New York