Theatre, Spirituality and Dementia: The Soul Still Knows Who They Are

We write about how Arti Prashar uses theatre and performance art to discover the new individual born out of dementia

मन चलती तन भी चलै, ताता मन को घेर

तन मन दौउ बसि करै, होय राईिु मेर।

[Mind walks then body also walks, therefore bind the mind / If you can control both mind and body, a particle can become the hill–Sant Kabir]

Most of the neuro scientists refuse to accept the existence of the mind beyond brain. But, the Cartesian Dualism (“I think, therefore I am”-Descartes) easily feels like a reality to any commoner who can think, visualise, opinionate, judge, and conclude as a general set of habits.How come my entire existence is limited within the boundary of a cortex occupying a three-pound jelly-like mass of tissue?It does not seem probable; rather it is scary to some extent to feel that every smallest mental and physical action of a human being is completely controlled by an incredible number of 100-billion nerve cells.

Outside the scientific conflict zone of mind vs. brain, there always is a grey issue concerning those people who are deprived of the logical functioning capacity and activity of the brain. For them, their friends, families and caregivers, the most important part of their existence is hope.Conventional medicine has its own limitation as far as mental disabilities and degenerations are concerned.Hence, alternative therapies are gaining importance these days to rediscover the strength of the mind even for terminal conditions. Arti Prashar, the Artistic Director of Spare Tyre and our Renaissance Person for the current issue, is creating theatre shows to instil that hope towards increasing the possibility of a meaningful existence among the patients of dementia and the people associated with those patients’ lives. In today’s fast-paced world we fall short on time to spend having a fruitful conversation with stable and healthy people within our social circle. Therefore, it is not easy to accept the challenges of a debilitating disability, find a realistic solution and implement it to improve the overall experience of everyone related to the issue.It takes a strong mind to lead the way and a stronger will to keep sharing the strength among people who need it most.

Art has always been an unconventional way to improvise the routes of the conventional healing process. But Arti follows a strategy of using her performance-based show as a conventional statement aimed at an alternate healing process, which effectively empowers people. Working with older people made her understand the significance of a holistic approach. It didn’t, however, come as a sudden change for her. Having both her parents living with dementia, there was a personal connection with the trauma. While conducting further research on the people of dementia, she came across the caregivers who fell short on ways to communicate with the patients of dementia. Anyone who has ever confronted a similar situation can understand how helpless and confusing it feels to not be able to communicate with someone who has been living without an impairment throughout their life and yet suddenly, they start failing to recognise their own identities! With greater scope and opportunities to think and work innovatively with a skilled and enthusiastic team at Spare Tyre, Arti accepted the challenge and dedicated her time to finding a holistic solution to dementia through art.

Managing a relationship with people experiencing any kind of mental or physical impairment is challenging. It requires special kind of knowledge. While the need to communicate is significant, for the people associated with the patients of dementia it is important to understand that communication with patients will be anew set of challenges every day. Hence, educating themselves to adapt to those changes so that they know what to expect and how to control an imminent situation is indispensable. Arti understood over the years that caretakers associated with a dementia patient – mostly family members or friends – often do not understand the impact dementia has over the life of a patient. In their honest effort to be compassionate and empathetic, they actually can create an unnecessarily stressful situation. The disease kills the past. The patient only lives in the moment and then it is lost for them, forever. Hence, instead of dwelling in the past it is important to keep creating good moments for the patient, everyday.

It is through her artistic endeavours that Arti hoped to fill this vacuum in communication. It required developing and perfecting a language which will not be so easily lost. Vocal communication was not the primary choice as it leaves very faint footprint in the minds of a person with dementia. Arti hence concentrated on the body language and tone of the speaker; when asked about the reason for this, Arti said that as a rule of thumb, when we lose any one capacity of the brain, we tend to develop other sensory capacities. Therefore, it was very likely that the patients of dementia would be able to relate for a longer period of time to an artistic experience that enriches them with a non-verbal but visual, auditory, and tactile experience. Arti’s innovative shows are based primarily on this approach that deals with the patients of dementia through an ongoing learning experience for both, the patients as well as the caregivers, family, and friends, without making the process of learning very evident.

Having been a reputed name for 40 years in the world of theatre and participatory arts, Spare Tyre has been the perfect platform for Arti’s experimentation-based multi-sensory shows. Female artists from various strata of life take part and play a major role in creating the ambience and effect. Spare Tyre explores the issues and stigmas related to equality, diversity and accessibility through their performing and digital arts.

Connecting to the patients’ spiritual capacity enhanced their ability to be involved, and also to maintain the involvement in continuum.This was again based on a personal finding that the spiritual strength of the patients is not lost alongside the diminishing capacity of their mind and the body.It was as if they knew who they were, but they were unable to connect to their surface-level identity for their day-to-day living. Arti kept experimenting and perfecting her shows by keeping them simply soulful, so that it is easily explored by the patients’ innate persona, helping them to create a new reality for themselves.

Arti is a Winston Churchill Fellow in the field of dementia, Ageing and Spirituality. Apart from dementia, Arti is now creating shows for people with other kind of disabilities also. We wish her success in her therapeutic endeavours to revive the lost hope and in opening new doors for the global community.

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