It’s late on a weekday morning at the Gate Cinema in London’s Notting Hill, and a smattering of older people in ones and twos have made a point of showing up to watch 42nd Street, the classic Hollywood musical from the 1930s.
But this isn’t just a regular trip to the pictures. This is a ‘dementia-friendly’ screening, aimed at people with Alzheimer’s and their carers, companions or family members.
Subtle differences that help
And once you looked closely, it was clear there were subtle differences from the typical screening. Tickets were a reasonable £4 each, with a free seat for one carer or companion.
Out in the foyer before the film started, all the audience were offered free tea or coffee with biscuits. Signs in large type indicated where they might find the refreshments -- and the toilets. Once inside, they found the lights stayed on during the film – somewhat dimmed, but giving out enough light that anyone walking around could find their way clearly.
There were no blaring adverts or trailers before the main film, and the sound of 42nd Street itself, while easily audible, was not jarringly noisy.
About 45 minutes into the film – the halfway point – the screen went blank and a young woman strode in front of it, greeted everyone and announced there could now be a short comfort break, if anyone wanted to take one. On this occasion, no-one did, and 42nd Street resumed.
Dementia-friendly film screenings, a relatively new innovation in Britain, are catching on fast. The Picturehouse group has 20 of their 23 cinemas nationwide currently hosting such screenings.
Leah Byrne, audience development manager for Picturehouse, who had addressed the audience, believes these screenings are a valuable asset both for people with dementia and the people who care for them: “It’s especially nice if they can experience an enjoyable film together.”
Classic musicals from the golden age of movies are a popular staple, she says; at the Gate, Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris have already been scheduled. And the rules are quite different from regular screenings: “People are encouraged to sing along, if they want. They are free to talk, and they’re also free to move around. It’s whatever makes them feel most comfortable.” The ‘soft lighting’ policy is meant to enhance a sense of reassurance: “Sometimes going from daylight into dark spaces can feel intimidating.”
Benefits of dementia-friendly screenings
As for singing along, Britain’s national Alzheimer’s Society endorses the benefits of singing together – and it seems to be well-established that hearing popular songs from the past can stimulate memory. The Society’s activities in this wider field come under the witty title Singing for The Brain.
Audiences are also encouraged to chat afterwards about the film they have just seen. Recently one discussion about Roman Holiday, starring Audrey Hepburn, was fruitful, with cinemagoers recalling names of other films in which she had appeared, and the names of her co-stars.
“We aim to create a relaxed, spacious place where there’s no need for jostling,” says Leah Byrne. “And we get people coming here who haven’t been out to the cinema in years.”
Esther Watts, an Alzheimer’s Society’s project manager for Dementia Action Alliances, welcomes these screenings, and insists her aim is to create ‘a community that’s creating fun, enjoyable activities for people with dementia and their carers or family members to share the experience.” For her, it’s about more than movie-going – the Society has organised days out to watch cricket at the Oval, and she works with museums like the British Museum and the V&A, and gyms run by the Better Group to help them become more dementia-friendly.
These film screenings are not confined to the Picturehouse group. The Dukes Cinema in Lancaster has played a pioneering role in introducing them. And my own local cinema, the historic Phoenix in East Finchley, already runs a series called Cinememories, screening classic films, many of them musicals. Other cinema chains may also run dementia-friendly screenings, check their listings for details.
By coincidence, the day after visiting the Gate, I was on a bus heading home when a group of older people boarded, having just seen South Pacific at the Phoenix. “Oh!” said one woman, her cheeks flushed with joy, “wasn’t that music just lovely!” Several of us already on board exchanged smiles.
And such smiles and joy may be the key to these screenings. Leah Byrne reports that a woman in Liverpool who attended one knew exactly why she’d has such a good time: “Coming out, being somewhere special - and meeting such lovely people.”