Engaging People with Dementia using Costumes

Members article

By Jane Verity © Dementia Care International

There is a common concern that dressing up and using costumes may be degrading and demeaning in regard tofeather_boa_lady.jpg people with dementia. However, this interpretation is based on our point of view; of what we would like or not like or what is right for us. When we shift our focus and step into the shoes of people with dementia, we can discover what is needed to awaken their dormant abilities.

Persisting with the same old routines, does not create a focal point that stimulates the person who has severe dementia to come ‘out of their shell’ and be engaged in this reality. When the frontal lobes of the brain are affected and social inhibitions lift,  the person with dementia reconnects with their inner child, which makes the use of costumes and playfulness appealing.

To ease the fear about the use of costumes being demeaning or infantilising, it can be helpful to remember that the concept of dressing up for an occasion is a universal and natural part of cultures all over the world. Just think of masquerades, carnivals, and different rites of passage or of actors in a play or a clown in a circus. The costumes for each of these occasions all have their place and serve the purpose of enhancing the experience. The Spark of Life Club Program  uses costumes in exactly the same way because it is easier for people with moderate to advanced dementia to remember interactions that incorporate colourful and unusual elements.

Costumes enable facilitators to stand out and helps people with dementia to recognise the person and know that something special is about to happen. Dressing up also provides a prompt for communication.

The experience of a facilitator dressing up remains with the person in their long-term memory as this part of the brain is stimulated by anything:

  • Unusual and different
  • Colourful
  • Humorous
  • Holds strong sensory experiences.

Dressing up is highly recommended but not essential. If using costumes is not your preferred option, you could simply try wearing a rainbow scarf to provide  focus. It is also important to remember that people in the early stages of dementia may not enjoy the use of costumes, as they are yet to lose their inhibitions and therefore may find the experience childish and demeaning.

The key is to let the individual person with dementia be the judge of whether costumes and playfulness is rekindling their spirit. If the person with dementia claps, smiles, laughs, sings, or dances and has a sparkle in their eye, they are showing you that costumes have rekindled their Spark of Life.