The view from Bologna

26th March, 2021

We were very lucky to have a presentation from Clelia D’Anastasio at the March Community Makers Forum, where we got a window into how community support has adapted to COVID19 restrictions in Bologna.

Clelia is a retired geriatrician, who has spent her whole career looking after the needs of the older population, including spending a year at Hammersmith Hospital in London. She is now Chairwoman of ARAD (translates to Association of Research Assistance in Dementia).

Before COVID her organisation ran traditional face-to-face community support activities, including three dementia cafes, providing psychological and counselling support to individuals and family groups. They delivered in-school activities to address the stigma of dementia and facilitating intergenerational connection. They also worked with communities centred around apartment blocks to foster social integration across the generations.

These activities were based on principles of creativity, touch, looking people in the eye, talking and sharing in the Italian love of food as a communal activity.

You may remember that northern Italy was one of the first and hardest hit areas during the first wave of the pandemic. They were the first in Europe to really experience the full impact of the virus, and their hospitals were quickly overwhelmed with heartbreaking consequences. It must have been terrifying as what seemed at the time like draconian restrictions were placed on citizens – although we have all experienced them to some degree now. Italy also has an aging population, and a very sociable culture, and so the loss of connection must have been a terrible shock to Italian families affected by dementia.

Clelia described many of the same experiences we have heard about from groups in the UK. They started to support their communities through WhatsApp chats, forming groups to convey information and guidance, and then moving on the Skype video calls, and then Zoom group meetings.

As they found their routine, they settled on weekly Zoom calls, led by a psychologist and a young actor who used to contribute to face-to-face meetings. They based their calls around the same agenda and activity types as the familiar face-to-face meetings, including singing, dancing, crosswords and more. They used Youtube to guide the singing and dancing, or provided lyrics to sing to on Powerpoint slides.

Of particular note, the psychologist also found that they could deliver cognitive games and stimulation online and developed techniques to do that effectively, and they continued their creative writing group for female carers as a therapy activity to help people express their emotions, fear, and even rage.

The group also managed to engage a local TV broadcaster, with the actor who contributed to community sessions, to broadcast some of their videos and activities over the television network. The hope was to reach people who did not have the technology to connect via Zoom. They launched a campaign called “Summer at Home”, which in italian sounds similar to “Stay at home” with programmes going out twice a week, and viewers could call in live to speak to the host and group organisers. According to Clelia, the programmes contained a mixture of information, empathy, and fun.

Overall the group were able to maintain contact with 100 to 120 people, and possibly more via the TV broadcasts.

Clelia described similar challenges that we have experienced in the UK. Early Zoom groups were advertised in newsletters and were subject to unwanted intrusions from trouble makers. They had to take measures to ensure that people were vetted before receiving the appropriate Zoom link.

In discussion after the presentation we talked about the value of retaining some of the digital activities and techniques when we go back to normal. Europe is still at risk of a growing third wave, and vaccination programmes are slower there than in the UK, so they are not yet emerging from lockdown. However, Clelia thought that the one-to-one counselling sessions for carers in particular were likely to remain online. Video connections in particular offered greater access and flexibility to carers to connect at times to suit them, even if activities involving people with dementia were more beneficial as face-to-face.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that there was a lot in common between the British and Italian experiences of adapting dementia community support in response to lockdown restrictions, but it was especially interesting to hear how Clelia’s group had engaged local media outlets to further their reach and provide more ways of engaging.

Photo by Marco Testi on Unsplash