Dementia Friendly Screenings: A workshop at the Dukes in Lancaster Contributed by Laura, who is currently working as activities officer at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds.

The aim of the Opening our doors session at The Dukes on 11th December was to help film exhibitors understand the particular needs of people living with dementia, which, importantly, is a category that includes carers and family members too.

This distinction was one of the many essential things pointed out in the day's opening session by Steve, who is a Dementia Friends Champion. Dementia Friends is an Alzheimer’s Society initiative, and Steve is great at getting people to really think about what living with dementia is like (his interactive presentation made me realise how little I actually knew about this subject).

A Dementia Friends Champion is a volunteer who encourages others to make a positive difference to people living with dementia in their community.

Dementia is an umbrella term for many diseases, it is not a natural part of ageing and it is not just people who are old who can be affected. Dementia is caused when disease damages the brain. Every instance of dementia can evolve differently and people with dementia can exhibit a range of behaviours and moods, even just in a single day.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia. The first symptom of Alzheimer’s is usually short-term memory loss, but the disease is progressive which means the symptoms will get worse. Sufferers start to have trouble forming new memories, although older memories remain accessible, but Alzheimer’s doesn’t just affect the memory, it also affects people's perception, motor skills, judgment, emotion and personality.

It is important to note that it is possible to ‘live well’ with dementia. People can be supported to live well with dementia. Steve asked us not to always focus on the negative when talking about people with dementia (ie. don't refer to them as ‘sufferers’).

As well as imparting many very practical bits of advice for cinemas, such as

- declutter your venue

- remove dark coloured doormats or rugs as they may disrupt people's perception

- be patient, listen

- speak clearly, maintain eye contact, use facial expression to match your words

his underlying message was this: always remember that there is more to a person than their dementia.

Next we heard from The Dukes' own Inclusive Film and Theatre Officer Gil Greystone, whose pioneering A Life More Ordinary film programme has been the inspiration for a host of other cinemas to follow their lead. She explained how she initially collaborated with researchers from Lancaster University's Centre for Ageing Research, with support from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, on an 18-month programme to test the demand for events aimed at people with dementia in Lancaster. 

Research in the local area had shown that people with dementia and their families struggle to find opportunities to socialise and to do 'normal' things together. This meant that people with dementia were not going out very often, or not at all.

Older people with dementia and their family members often feel that they are deprived of activities to undertake together. Many want to maintain their long-standing relationships, albeit in a different context, and resent the stereotypical assertions that the person with dementia is no longer the person they were and that all possibility of relationship has to be discarded. Individually each may have fears about the future and hide these from the other. They are anxious about potential unusual behaviour of the person with dementia in social settings such as cafés, films or meetings. They sense intolerance from others. They may find the environment hostile – too much noise, access difficult, poor signs and lighting. Such isolation is compounded by lack of confidence in going to new places and difficulties with transport. Some transport problems are readily identified, (someone no longer being able to drive or bus and train services not being practicable). Others are more insidious, perhaps doubts about the behaviour of one’s partner, or a recognition of their fears when travelling.

After the success of the pilot project, the next phase was the ‘Life More Ordinary’ project which began in 2015, and it is set to run over 3 years.

Screenings are presented in association with AGE UK Lancashire, who also offer a free transport service to help more people in outlying districts attend.

These screenings are daytime events, with an introduction, often with a live music interval and participatory activities such as sing-a-longs. Screenings are staffed with extra attendents, there is low level lighting during the film and free hot drinks. 

The Dukes' current programme is here. Many other cinemas and community film clubs in the North West (and beyond) have now incorporated 'dementia-friendly' events into their regular events schedule.

Jane Woodason from the Light cinema in New Brighton spoke next. She said that the dementia friendly screenings there are very popular with audiences and that multiple venues within the Light cinemas chain in the North West are now taking part in the initiative. They are considering calling these events ‘relaxed screenings’ rather than 'dementia friendly' to lessen the stigma and make them even more inclusive.

The venue has to be accommodating of the needs of this audience, of course, and Jane said familiarity and safety are crucial;

‘decluttering’ and clear signage are part of the preparation for every dementia friendly event, sometimes the entire front row of seats remains unsold to make room for extra wheelchair spaces.

They tend to show classic films, with subtitles where possible to help the hard of hearing, and without any ads or trailers. Their trained staff include a Dementia Champion and extra staff and volunteers who are on hand during the screenings. Charity partners help out with the event costs, but the cinema has found that local sponsorship partners have also been very enthusiastic: Iceland foods and Prezzo regularly donate free food, which is an added temptation for audiences.

After this, Elizabeth Costello from Leigh Film Society gave us the community cinema perspective; Leigh Film is a volunteer-run community cinema organisation which has been going since 2013. It scooped a bunch of Film Society of the Year awards at this year's Cinema For All Community Film Conference and Awards Ceremony in Sheffield.

Leigh is a small town in Greater Manchester. They organise a few different screenings and events on a monthly basis, all are not for profit and the £2 donation for the 'Classic Film Club' events (which are dementia friendly) on the last Friday of each month is completely optional. Tea and coffee is just 50p. Volunteers wear t-shirts so they are easily identified.

Elizabeth said that word of mouth is essential for publicity, because online doesn’t help much. Flyers are great too, and it's best have flyers for next screening ready each time. Showing photos from the film on the flyer will also help people with dementia to remember it. She added that their Classic Film programme follows requests from audiences where possible.

Finally, we heard a very moving first-person testimony from Mary Porter, a Dukes audience member who had until recently been the primary carer for husband with dementia. She shared what had been most important for her about the Life More Ordinary events; a warm welcome on the door, affordability, and regular dates – having something to look forward to was really helpful as a carer, and a quiet place to sit if required was another bonus. The Dukes opens up a side room adjacent to the bar as people are arriving, in case the main lobby is too noisy for some of the people with dementia to cope with.

Mary said that she was also grateful for the extra staff or volunteers on doors, in case of wandering. As a carer, you sometimes can be briefly separated from the one you are caring for, if for example you have to nip out to the toilet by yourself, or you want to share something you've learned with another carer while you have the chance. Knowing that the space was staffed appropriately was a huge relief and making the trip out of the saftey of the home became less worrying for the carer.

It's not surprising to hear that these screenings are emotional and rewarding for all involved, I think every one of the speakers made this point in different ways.

It's also rewarding to see that recognition comes back to the organisers and their venue for making the extra effort in this area of programming.

After the training session, we were invited to join the Dukes for their dementia friendly screening of the 1940s film Meet Me In St Louis in the afternoon. There was a good audience for the film for such a frosty and icy day.

Songs can help to trigger the memory, so musicals like this are a very popular type of film for these screenings.

The low lighting in the auditorium allowed me to observe how people responded during the screening. During the first part there was no audible singing, but I happened to notice a family group sat in front of me who immediately turned their eyes to an elderly member of their party as soon as the first song in the film began. It gave me a bit of a lump in my throat, I have to say.

We're looking forward to trialling some of these events at the Hyde Park Picture House in Leeds early in the new year. To join the email news list for these screenings, please do get in touch: laura@hydeparkpicturehouse.co.uk