LSA Exec Top Picks: Chris Russell

The practices and pursuits of leisure offer opportunity to consider aspects of life traditionally overlooked in the context of living with dementia. For example, meaning related to an individual’s place in the world, and the pleasure they may draw from activity. My ‘top picks’, therefore, are three articles that resonate with this, and afford the opportunity to think differently.

My first is Mandy Cook’s ‘Using urban woodlands and forests as places for improving the mental well-being of people with dementia’ (vol 39:1). Cook highlights how scholarly attention has moved beyond the clinical contexts traditionally associated with dementia (such as hospitals and care homes). Whilst these remain significant and important, she argues people should expect opportunity to live fulfilled lives, irrespective of illness, with access to diverse places that can provide this. Cook points out that urban woodlands and forests can be utilised as part of responses to the challenges presented by dementia to promote well-being. However, this does not have to be through formal, health-based interventions. Time spent in urban woodlands and forests are what many people enjoy and value, and this should be enough for its own sake. I liked the emphasis Cook gave to recognising a person’s wishes and aspirations, and the contribution others can make alongside them within a leisure context. The key themes from Cook’s research related to the mental well-being afforded by urban woodland activities for people living with dementia. Her findings highlighted the importance of recognising the wholeness of people with dementia, and that retaining a place in the life of one’s local community can be enabled through leisure.

A study conducted in Taiwan is my second choice. This is Eva (Hui-Ping) Cheng, Shane Pegg and Robert Stebbins’, ‘Old bodies, young hearts: a qualitative exploration of the engagement of older male amateur rugby union players in Taiwan’ (vol 35:5). This article was of interest because of its exploration of ageing in a leisure context. I liked the authors’ conceptualisation of growing older as a multidimensional phenomenon recognising individuals age biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually, and in different ways. Adjustment to life with dementia is challenging but important, and understanding the relevance of the concurrent ageing journey is therefore vital. A continued sense of one’s place in the world can help with successful adjustment, and therefore the article’s use of the concept of serious leisure was instructive. The authors found that ongoing participation in rugby gave participants an overwhelming sense of nostalgia and pride, and provided them with strong friendships and a sense of belonging and meaning. Whilst reminiscence was part of this, ongoing physical activity was fundamental to achieving these ends. The authors also pointed out that players used their bodies to realise a sense of control. This was notable because dementia can erode the ability and confidence of people to engage in speech and conversation, making embodied communication, such as this, potentially more significant.

My final pick is Maureen Harrington’s ‘Practices and meaning of purposive family leisure among working- and middle-class families’ (vol 34:4). This was interesting because family members are fundamental to the well-being of people living with dementia. Whilst Harrington’s article had nothing directly to do with dementia, it was helpful in highlighting that families are diverse in nature and composition. Families are also influenced by multiple identities, for example related to ethnicity, class and sexuality. Harrington’s reflections upon income differences between families, and how these can constrain leisure opportunities was instructive too. For example, as services for people living with dementia and public services generally have been cut, more emphasis has been placed upon families to provide help and support. This inevitably affects poorest families most adversely. More positively, Harrington’s discussion of leisure enabling families to continue to display themselves as such, i.e. through family leisure, was helpful in highlighting how leisure activity could contribute to identity. Identity is corroded for individuals because of the symptoms of dementia illnesses. Leisure activity, undertaken together by family members, could contribute to strengthening or shaping of new family identities (whatever form or composition a family might take). Potentially this feels very exciting.

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