This week sees national Dementia Awareness Week upon us – in fact well underway by the time you might be reading this. I have made reference before to the number of awareness days and weeks that are part of our calendar and which naturally cover a wide variety of important topics. Last week was ‘Dying Matters’ week and as part of this a Dying Matters conference was held in Somerset. It was very successful, attended by more than 200 people, which only goes to show that focussing on a particular topic for a specific day or week each year can be really successful in raising its profile. This week is not just Dementia Awareness week, it also coincides with ‘Make May Purple for Stroke’ an initiative to both raise awareness of stroke and to show the support for those affected by stroke. Consequently you may see quite a number of people wearing purple and taking part in various fundraising events in support of this.

Within the hospital we try to make a bit of a splash to support these important initiatives and when it comes to dementia awareness, each year we find ourselves trying to improve upon what we did the previous year. If I say that last year’s Dementia Awareness week featured the premier of our ‘Re-found Sound’ project featuring the unveiling of a unique piece of music by the composer Marc Yeats, it may give an indication of what I mean by ‘splash’. Marc’s piece of music was designed to evoke a sense of confusion and disorientation for the listener which might be likened to experiencing some symptoms of dementia. It was an unusual installation based on the words and experiences of people with dementia as well of those caring for people with the condition. It was designed to be thought provoking and encourage the listener to consider what it might be like to experience dementia. The entire Re-found Sound project has been incredibly successful. One part of it has enabled us to have regular live artists on the wards playing a variety of musical instruments for patients and the composed installation has found an audience at a number of national conferences and has even prompted some organisations to consider how it might be incorporated into educational resources around dementia.

So, this year, alongside our usual information stands, Dementia Friends sessions and a Retro Bingo fundraiser we have decided to introduce music into the mix once again. Today (Thursday 18 May) we will have our very own tastefully decorated piano spending the day in the main entrance with a sign on it saying ‘Play me I’m yours’. We are hoping that our musically inclined visitors to the hospital might take the opportunity to play for us. We have persuaded a few talented members of staff to play. You might ask what this has to do with dementia awareness. Not an unreasonable question and one that has been asked before when we are launching some of our seemingly more off beat initiatives. Our aim is for the music to encourage people to linger in the main entrance and perhaps ask us what it is in aid of – the perfect opener to a conversation about Dementia Awareness week. This is not entrapment I promise, the conversation might simply end there but for us it is an opportunity to provide a relaxed way of inviting people to talk to us about anything they would like to about dementia.

We feel very strongly about removing the stigma around dementia – talking about it and raising awareness is imperative if we are to be able to do that. Information stands are an excellent source of information but tend to attract just those people who may already have an interest in something or more notably are affected by it. With this in mind we try to provide a variety of ways to get people to engage in the conversation.  Many of us are more likely to take an interest in a particular subject when it features in our life in some way. As a community though we all need to have an understanding of dementia and how to support someone with it, whether that relates to someone we are close to or somebody we meet fleetingly and realistically there are few of us that will go through our lives untouched by dementia in one way or another. Sadly, the fear and stigma around dementia can serve to perpetuate the isolation that so many people with dementia experience. Understanding more about the disease and its impact can help people to realise that there are a great many things they can do to help people to live well with dementia and support them to remain active within our communities. People with dementia can live well and are just as able to enjoy quality experiences but are far better able to do this if they are living in a society that values them and endeavours to keep them at the heart of our communities. Dementia Awareness week is all about promoting this. Naturally having a piano and live music in the main foyer of the hospital is also about fun and enjoyment. We try to ensure that this underpins much of what we do. Quality of life is what we all strive for and if our piano music cheers someone coming into the hospital then that can only be positive.

Along a similar theme we also have a wonderful art exhibition to celebrate the week (and beyond). It is entitled Animal Magic and features some fantastic depictions of animals and reminds us of their invaluable therapeutic value. Animals are an important element of our wellbeing work here at the hospital. I have mentioned Lofty the therapy horse in the past but as our exhibition shows, a whole variety of animals have a part to play when it comes to wellbeing. Animals can reduce isolation and help people to stay connected within our communities. The love of an animal is non-judgmental and often unconditional, which is a powerful thing for any of us. The responsibility of feeding an animal or perhaps having to take it for a walk can be sufficient motivation to keep a person active within their community and remind them of their own value.

The therapeutic value of animals has long been recognised, as our exhibition shows.

Even as far back as Florence Nightingale, who herself wrote about the role of ‘small pets’ in reducing anxiety and improving recovery. I also have it on good authority that there was a tortoise called Jimmy that lived within her hospital who was greatly valued by the injured soldiers she cared for. I would lie to imagine Florence Nightingale might have approved of Lofty the therapy horse. Alongside all of the men who were killed in the Crimean war there were also a great many horses that died. There is no doubt that must have been terrible for the soldiers and perhaps the sight of a horse on their wards might have been a comfort. I’m pretty sure Lofty would never have been a battle horse though, rather too small, but nonetheless the perfect height to have his head stroked from a hospital bed.

Since Florence Nightingale, there have been many renowned advocates of the therapeutic benefits of animals or Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) as it is sometimes called, and I hope that this is something that will continue to flourish. Perhaps you have some suggestions of other animals we might be able to introduce to our patients within the hospital or perhaps you have an animal that is itself a therapy animal. If so we would love to hear from you.

In the mean-time if you are near the hospital please come in and take a look at our exhibition in the main outpatients’ corridor and if you are there on the 18 May and can play the piano, even better!

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