European reminiscence network symposium 26th June 2014

Pam Schweitzer MBE invited me to speak at the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today (RYCT) symposium held at University of Greenwich on 26th June 2014.

It was attended by over 100 people, with representation from many parts of the UK as well as from Germany, Poland, France, Czech Republic, Spain, Slovakia, Finland, Ireland and Estonia.

The attenders brought a wide range of knowledge and experience to reflect on during the day – from  family members of people with dementia, volunteers who have supported Reminiscence groups, apprentices and trainers from the RYCT programme, academics, medical professionals – (psychiatrists, nurses and  general practitioners),  art therapists, and professional artists,  care home staff, staff from key charities and professional bodies concerned with Alzheimers, Dementia and the  Arts, journalists from the field of Dementia and Elderly Care and people who themselves have Dementia .

The symposium was part of a series of events and programmes carried out by the European Reminiscence Network, which was established in the 1990s and has  enabled many people across Europe to understand and experience the power of creative approaches to living with Dementia.

The first speaker was the Chief Executive of the Professional Standards Agency, Harry Cayton CBE.  His eloquent talk was a perfect introduction to the links between arts and memory. He talked of the normality of short term memory – loss  – forgetting where we parked our car, or the route from the station to the symposium venue –  and of the difference between that normality and the loss of memory impacting on function – forgetting we have a car, forgetting where we are when we arrive at the symposium. He reminded us of the many elements of memory – spatial, kinetic , semantic, and its crucial importance to our sense of self as it charts our autobiography.

My own speech is outlined below –

The sense of art

Thanks for the opportunity to speak here at this gathering

When I first started in work as a practitioner using the medium of drama with many different communities – either geographical communities, of many mixed generations,  or people drawn together because of their age or circumstances –  perhaps at day-centres, or in hospitals, I heard about , saw and attended a training session led by Pam in the 1980s.

I am now advising the Baring Foundation on its Arts and Older People programme, which supports a very wide range of initiatives under that broad umbrella title.

Arts is in itself a very broad term. Amongst those we have supported,  it has included music, dance, craft. Photography, theatre and drama, film, poetry and story –telling , digital media, all kinds of visual arts.

Projects and programmes have  taken place in or been made or exhibited and performed in care homes, community centres, gardens, memory cafes, sheltered housing, people’s own homes and some of it  in mainstream cultural  venues such as galleries, museums, theatres, etc. as part of small village events or major national celebrations such as the Cultural Olympiad.

Sometimes it has been part of the everyday fabric of life, fitted around the basic care routines and sometimes it has been a special occasion, just as the arts in our own lives are sometimes virtually unnoticed aspects of the fabric of our daily life and sometimes they are  a special feast for the mind the senses and the imagination – a real treat or a special occasion.

I’m going to give you a small glimpse of some examples of  the work that I’ve witnessed, led by artists,  which has a strong relationship to Reminiscence  work  although it may not have that as its main focus or  intended outcome.  I have always been interested in trying to get at the special qualities of an arts approach, whilst recognising it will not be the only or necessarily the most appropriate approach for everyone.

I have observed that, as well as their specific skills and crafts, I think many artists are practised in a peculiar kind of insight – and in re-organising and re-presenting what they see; they pay peculiar attention through particularly alert senses . They can also tend to be less worried about the unconventional – so often they find the behaviour and the responses of people with dementia interesting rather than “problematic”.

One of the major issues of institutions and care homes is the reduction in sensory stimulation – visual stimulation, sound, smells, touch, amongst all the senses are other elements that are part of our human repertoire of being alive – stories, patterns, games and playfulness, laughter, movement, creativity and imagining things .  Above all it is our agency – our ability to make things happen which is highly restricted by Dementia, and by society’s and even (or especially our loved ones’) response to it.

B arts  went into care homes in Stoke – their project was  aiming to concentrate on sound, to bring the spaces of the home alive with  recorded sounds –  a bird song recording on the way to the garden, the  sound of an old fashioned typewriter outside the offices –  and some sounds that were not so literal –  when they brought in the sounds of the pot bank, they  tapped into  the hidden skills and life stories  of the residents,  all of whom had had some work or other in the Potteries – as Bottom Knockers, Dipper Glazers, Crank Makers Fettlers, fritter and Jigger Turners!

They found that only one  song was ever played on the communal sound system –  I think it was a Gracie Fields song –  so  they produced  playlists for individuals – a practice which I know is quite wide=spread now and will surely be so  as the i-pod generation ages. They addressed what they called memory box mania – by introducing  processes of gathering material ( sound and visuals) on Ipads.  This device brought enriched  material in from the local library and archives, and the world wide web,   gathered and reinforced  new memories from footage of events and simple recording of everyday things at the home and personal scanned-in documents.

Joan is a resident – her husband comes to visit daily, she doesn’t know him, he is reluctant to give up his only print of himself as a young man. It is scanned in and becomes part of Joan’s bank of growing images from past to present.  Anne  ( artists) documents Joan’s reaction to it – the only reaction she has made to any stimulus for many months. The only sign for her husband that she has any connection to him at all.

The ceramic artist Clare Loder   worked alongside staff in a residential care home and family members living with a relative with Dementia in their own home. They talked as they worked with clay. The touch of clay, the manipulation, the forming, the movement, the changing texture – freed from words, freed from striving towards anything – memories came forth and all kinds of different ways of seeing and hearing were possible. The eventual collection of works made for a different insight into the world so dominated by the daily existence of dementia. The carer had a break from the isolation of living with dementia, power and agency in many ways during those sessions at the end in a beautiful exhibition in the local arts centre enjoyed by those who took part and those who visited.

Spare Tyre Theatre devised Once Upon a Time. I saw it at a nursing home in Luton – whose residents were all living with severe dementia – and were more or less locked into their own worlds – with little or no apparent control over communication, or decision making .

 This multi-sensory interactive storytelling based project was designed to be highly interactive  – using every sense to tell a story and immerse the participants in it.  Sound light smell touch, images, words, music . There was little about specific reminiscences – but acts of travelling, greetings, moods of sadness and happiness heightened by highly sensitive and animated actors focused one to one on the “audience” woke up recognition in all the participants.

I left the event and sat in my car in the car park noting:

“The drama practitioners used enlarged gesture and expression without altering the integrity of this as  adult discourse. Their skills lay in an extraordinary alertness to any responses and behaviour the patients showed. … they accepted all behaviour and were responsive and led by the participants.”

Music is perhaps the most researched and ubiquitous artform.  We lay down our musical memories from before birth. Culturally we tend to gather the soundtrack of our lives during our teenage and early twenties.  We connect music to moods and moments – falling in love, going on journeys, being part of a group of friends, taking part in landmark moments.  It is a keen way of expressing our own identity and community as well as our life stories.

Finally I come to a company based in Wales – Re-Live –  who also trained with Pam, and have applied their  basic belief in the idea that everyone has a story to tell across a range of groups  – from a very powerful account of the personal experiences of war veterans and their carers –  to a recent professional theatre show I saw, depicting the experiences of dementia  – highly skilled cast of professional actors, allowing the audience to stare! We were able to watch and listen in to the common but unique experiences of two families experiencing the onset and the final stages of dementia.  They drew on the work of Dr Yukimi Uchide of Japan, with whom Karin Diamond ( co-director of Re-Live worked  (thanks to a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship) .  Japan has been through the ageing demographic way ahead of us. Their journey through the challenges  of an ageing population  has been described as beginning with the   era of cure:  “putting people in care homes and giving out  medication” ; the era of care – massive programmes of arts and stimulation put into those homes; and now the era of reciprocity – where people have “treasured partners” – where activities are collaborative, based on consent, identity, adulthood and preserving agency. People with dementia are more likely to be out and about in society, shopping, travelling and being visible. Dr Uchide has done pioneering work to educate the rest of the community to be less fearful, and more including.

Re-Live ‘s most recent project  was a play –  Belonging’ depicting the onset of dementia its trajectory and its impact on families, and importantly the voice of people experiencing it. It was an antidote to the depiction of dementia as nothing but a frightening prospect of abuse in care homes, which seems to be the TV ‘s only response to the major issue of our time.


The arts are not better or best, they are a contributing act – they can explain, they can relieve, they can distract,  they can campaign, they can draw on the insights of human experience and they can offer a different kind of agency and communication between people. I leave you with a quote from artists Jenny Hayes, who worked with people with dementia and their family member carers in Devon:

 “Participants are experts in their own lives, artists are specialists in shaping meaning. They aim for a reciprocal collaboration. The creation of high quality arts products is not for the glorification of the artist, but to honour and respect the experiences of the participants and to make meaningful products for audiences.”











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