The Courtyard in Herefordshire is the first arts venue to sign up to the Dementia Action Alliance and Alice Saunders hopes it leads where others will follow in improving accessibility for affected families.

Dementia week live drawing at The Courtyard

A trip to the theatre can often be an overwhelming and stressful idea for the 800,000 people in the UK living with dementia, as well as their families. Simple things such as queuing, sitting with strangers and even show announcements over a tannoy can be stressful and unnerving. Staff, unaware of the condition, often don’t know how to help.

The Courtyard Centre for the Arts wants to change that for the people of Herefordshire, and hopes to demonstrate to other theatres across the UK the differences those changes can make. The Courtyard has already created and run some mentally and physically stimulating participatory arts projects for older people, many of which have also been directly beneficial to those with dementia. The arts centre has poet John Killick in residence, and has already held poetry workshops across the county based around writing poetry for memory. Also, a co-production with a Worcester-based masked theatre company, Vamos, has brought an emotive tale about dementia to the stage. But this commitment has now been taken one step further as The Courtyard has become the first arts venue in the country to join the Dementia Action Alliance. The organisation will pledge to overcome challenges, to improve accessibility to the arts and theatre for people with dementia, and to establish the organisation as a leader in developing dementia-friendly arts venues.

The Dementia Action Alliance is made up of over 100 organisations committed to transforming the quality of life of people living with dementia and their carers. All have signed the National Dementia Declaration, which explains the challenges presented to our society by dementia and lists some of the outcomes the group wants to achieve. Signatories to the Declaration publish their own Action Plans on the Dementia Action Alliance website, setting out what they will do to secure these outcomes and improve the quality of life for people with dementia by 2014. The Courtyard’s plan has been developed in collaboration with the Alzheimer’s Society, and a steering group is trying to establish what the theatre already does to raise awareness of dementia and what steps can be taken across the building to shape the future arts experiences of dementia sufferers. This includes a training programme for key front of house staff in a bid to create the country’s most dementia friendly venue.

All of this is in preparation for participatory events for Dementia Awareness Week in May this year, which will see a repeat of last year’s live drawing event, as well as performances and other events taking place around the building, giving staff an opportunity to put their training into practice. There are future plans to work with the Youth Theatre Director to produce a specific performance where students can work with people with dementia to create a production. These events will not only help promote awareness of dementia, but help the steering group better understand the needs and challenges of families. The aim is to introduce policies that will make every event at The Courtyard more accessible for families living with the dementia.

Alice Saunders is Arts and Older Peoples Project Coordinator at The Courtyard Centre for the Arts

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Alice Saunders