Memory Plays

How a theatre ensemble helps people with dementia

The theatre ensemble Demenzionen's plays are designed to trigger memories among the audience. Courtesy Demenzionen
10 October, 2019

On a warm July afternoon, in a large, airy room, three elderly actors chatted away behind a white curtain, as they waited for their audience to be seated. Next to them lay an open brown leather suitcase with metallic edges, a radio set that dated back to before the collapse of the Berlin Wall and an old songbook. The walls were splashed with photos from Italy.

It took a while for the spectators to arrive from the upper levels, as the elevator could fit in only three wheelchairs at a time. Those who could walk independently settled down on neatly aligned brown, cushioned chairs. Those in wheelchairs were positioned so that they left enough space for the actors to walk through and reach every viewer.

Being performed at the Diacor retirement home in Bad Honnef, a spa town in western Germany, the show was a humorous musical called Journey to the South Side, about a family’s holiday from West Germany to Italy in the 1950s. The multisensory performance by the theatre ensemble Demenzionen was interactive, and took its viewers back into their past, a place where they felt most comfortable.

Including arts intervention into everyday care can be tremendously effective for people with dementia. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that music, visual arts and dance have positive effects on their mood, alleviating depression and apathy. They are also linked to better language functioning and an improved quality of life.

Priti Salian is a Bangalore-based journalist who covers human rights, social justice, development and culture for The Guardian, the BBC, National Geographic, NPR, Al Jazeera and many other publications.