Thursday, 23 August 2012

Of moths and mothers

We are running reminiscence workshops at the Pinfold Centre in Bury, working with people who have a dementia diagnosis to build up life-stories, for use as their disease progresses and memories are 'eaten' by the disease.

The sessions are often based around remembering childhood, because childhood memories tend to be the most vivid and remain so throughout life. They also bring a big quota of affection and playfulness, which help these particular sessions to counter the upset of the dementia.

“Sink or dolly tub, posset going hell for leather, the wash-house was our kitchen. Rinse under the tap, hang the washing indoors on a rack, pull it up on a rope. Snap it and your washing was down. I broke so many washing lines, always in trouble. But they made very good skipping ropes.” (Margaret)

The memories are also tough in themselves: “Sometimes mum never went to bed til early morning. She'd be washing til then. My mum took washing in – one person was a school teacher and others were mums who went out to work. They'd pay her, just a little bit. They were hard days but we got through it.” (Ivy)

The word remembering is a combination of re- and -membering, ie. to give body to something that previously has become dis-embodied, or dismembered. Often this is a joyful recovery, but sometimes it is deeply distressing and this Friday's session was a mix of the two emotions. I want particularly to write about the experience of K.

K's delight in finding memory was coupled with horror in realising what was lost. The disease forced acceptance of what was happening to him, there was no way open, other than reluctant good grace. He talked about 'crawling' to find recollection that had toppled away 'off the edge'.

'Memory, it's dropped off the edge. I'll just have to wait til it crawls back. I was a designer and that kind of atmosphere. Started work at 14. All things change, you're always an apprentice.' (K)

Even at the end of life you're still learning to live with the situation you're in. Dementia causes erosion of language and the necessity for its re-invention. The poetic qualities of K's speech were a wonderful find in the midst of misery, but came highly-priced. I walked away from that session sad beyond my own words.

Including K in the session had been both my judgement and that of staff; it's not possible to know the right decision in such a situation. Being over-cautious means excluding people and deeper discussion, but inclusion brings risk too. It is possible that K will ask to come into the workshops again, but the signs of overload will need to be watched for very carefully.

Writing up these session notes, full of battered recollections and hand-me-downs, I'm reminded of the old-fashioned habit of keeping clothes in mothballs. But these memories aren't protected – and sometimes when they are held up to the light, the holes are only too apparent. K's attempt to find the pattern of his life from half-gone memory was a little like seeing a moth fluttering at the window.

In the late summer evening as I write up these notes, the moths are at our windows again. They flutter in the light, their wings bright and amazing as they beat themselves half to death against the glass.

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