Wednesday, 3 October 2012

How do you tell a life?

Pinfold Centre, Bury 28 September 2012

The idea behind our project Spaghetti Maze is to provide memory props for people with dementia, to help them recall their lives. There are many such projects and 'life story work' is becoming a common phrase in care of older people – but we're adding some new elements.

We've built these life stories around favourite, or recurring, memories reflected in art and poems made by participants. Many of the artworks have key phrases from these memories written into the image, so that words and pictures entwine (as they often do in our projects). Our theme is the family tree and trees generally, spinning off into material about childhood and fairytales.

The artworks are made by participants and phrases from their poetry are handwritten by them into the visual pieces. The hope is that these visual/poems will be powerful memory-aids because the makers are connected to these pieces of paper by their own sense of touch.

Family Tree, Kathleen Simon, Sept 2012

Poems and artworks and extracts of conversations are all included in the package of material we're putting together for each person. We hope that they'll be useful for carers looking after participants as they go further down the 'dementia pathway' as it's known. Our hope is that, using a book of this material, someone can sit down with a participant and engage them in conversation about their past life in a way that is  meaningful and multi-layered.


But how do you tell a life? It's a question that has vexed the great artists and writers. Variously and in random order Proust, Lyn Hejinian, Adolf Wolfli, Susan Hiller, James Joyce have played chase with the essence of being alive. All attempts must fail of course, but as Beckett said, the trick is to 'Fail better.'

The life story books we've seen in care settings usually contain the basic facts of someone's passage through society: details of marriage, children, place of birth, occupation, together with hobbies, dis/likes regarding TV and music and puddings and similar. But isn't there more to tell? Or are bald facts actually the best memory triggers for people with dementia? These things certainly aren't the common topics of conversation among the people we've met. We've kept returning in our chats to the touchstones of memory, usually set down in childhood, or moments of great change.

Putting together a great swathe of Proustian complexity is not the answer here. These little life stories are functional things, to be used by carers who might not have much time and need to access information quickly. Also, the participants need stimulus that is powerfully relevant to them, rather than arty and diffuse.
'Charles chasing Katy' Kathleen 2012

Our guess is that providing the material that someone talks about passionately (say a childhod obsession with football) is going to be more useful in such situations than lists of marriages, births and deaths that mean little to a gradually self-alienating consciousness.

The time commitment necessary to make these life stories work has been large. The raw material of anyone's long life is going to be huge; this is further compounded by the difficulty that participants have in grappling with the task of remembering, understanding, documenting. For some people with dementia, the act of writing is a vertigo experience, sickening and fearful. This afternoon, I've spelt out a participant's words to them letter by letter; this morning, even making the letters was a giant stretch for one person. We have to be very careful that the individual involved is willing to undertake this challenge and doesn't feel overwhelmed, or underwhelmed, or humiliated. Discussions of this sort are not always clear-cut – there's a balance to be struck between empowering the individual and protecting their confidence which is easy to shatter.

Football, Gordon, Sept 2012

But there has been much pleasure on the way, as well as confusion and anxiety. We hope it's been worthwhile for the participants' sake, but it can't be judged yet, the patterns we've made aren't clear. And first we must trek through the dark wood of memory and dementia, searching for the path, trying to see those precious breadcrumb trails.

For more artwork and poems please visit

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