Around the year 2000 the shopkeepers in the town centre of Fujinomiya, under the shadow of Mount Fuji had a problem. It’s a story that UK high streets have been very familiar with. Out of town competition by national chains with a buying power that they couldn’t match were taking away their trade. A large proportion of their ‘old’ customers were old people, who with the breakup of traditional families were becoming increasingly isolated. Their economic predicament met a breaking social need head on and, out of the collision, came the birth of one of Japan’s first dementia friendly communities. Awareness of the specific needs of older customers, many of whom had dementia, led to the development of imaginative, open and inclusive approaches to supporting the needs of a rapidly changing demographic. If a checkout queue is slowed down by someone struggling to make a payment then another checkout is opened so other shoppers don’t have long waits. Short public training courses in dementia awareness were devised and now about 6 million nationwide have taken part in them to become Dementia Supporters over ten years. They have been the inspiration for the UK Dementia Friends scheme.
In England, Jeremy Hughes, the Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s society has talked of the step change needed to effectively deal with the challenge of dementia. Action and awareness need to happen, he says, not just in the lab or care setting, but within our wider society. This is where I wonder if, as cultural practitioners, we need to take up the challenge of the Fujinomiya shopkeepers and revaluate the role of the arts in engendering more equal, open and responsive communities.
The powerful disability arts movement in the UK uses the social model of disability when speaking of its practice. It was specifically developed by disabled people to identify, and take action against stigmatization and discrimination. Pioneering activitists challenged the notion of disability as an individual medical problem that placed emphasis on what people were not able to do because of their impairment. They challenged a status quo that isolated and segregated. ‘Only connect’ wrote the novelist E. M. Forster, “live in fragments no longer”. Is there not a very real danger that many artists, working with people who are living with dementia, are falling into the segregation trap. Why place the name of a disease within the strap line description of a body of arts practice? It unhelpfully lures us back into the old ways of seeing.
In his book, Managing Vulnerability, the social scientist Tim Dartington, includes chapters written by his wife, health academic, Anna Dartington. She writes with the perspective of someone who in her early 50’s has early onset dementia:
‘We are all fundamentally alone with our own experience and at the same time, willingly or unwillingly, but inevitably, an integral part of human groups: at work, in families, as citizens and members of the wider society”.
As artists and cultural practitioners we walk around in the company of those two words: ‘what if?’ tucked into our back pocket. We are in an extraordinarily strong position to explore new ways within which diverse groups of people can be supported to imaginatively re-engage with the world together across the boundaries of difference. It’s not rocket science. Dementia friendly societies will be, by definition, friendly societies, so why not just aim for ‘friendly societies’? Of course we will need to operate with all of the care and rigor and understanding needed to get things right. But surely then we will be able to truly see the person who, underneath our projected confusion and fear, is quietly screaming “I’m still here”.