Thursday, 20 September 2012

The many uses of a rolling pin

I often feel guilty about the collections of objects I have gathered over the years - and the dust that they collect - however, yesterday a few started to earn their keep. Phil and I were in Oldham for the Making Memories project, working with older people at The Grange Supported Housing and at High Barn Day Centre. Reminiscence; loose poetic forms and printmaking were inspired by the objects.

The Old Fire Range, monoprint, Eunice Booth

Over the course of the project we want to look at how people respond to 'real' objects as opposed to photos of objects. Does handling an object, feeling its weight, texture, dimensions even smelling it, prompt a deeper more meaningful memory? My instincts say that a real object will be more powerful than a photo.

There will be other factors to take into account, each individual will have a different relationship with the objects shown, depending on their own histories. One day to another we can all respond differently to the same objects - additionally, each group  of people creates a unique dynamic which affects responses. Finally, each dementia is dissimilar and at various stages of progression, making another layer of subjectivity.

Yvette's measuring spoon, rolling pin, mixing bowl and board, monoprint.

In the afternoon I only used a small fraction of the objects I brought - all on the theme of cooking. The Turkey Baster inspired some interesting discussion around its possible uses- it seems that providing some more un-familiar objects in the box might be quite useful. The Palette Knife didn't get much response - except the desire to flick icing across the room! The object that got the most reaction to was the Rolling Pin,  a simple object that many people have in their kitchen, which sparked conversation and demonstrations. Irene commented: 'When you see things like this, it brings all sorts of memories, to hold it is totally different than looking at a photo, it brings back memories- I used it to stamp potatoes, roll pastry, wave at the children - that rolling pin came in quite handy.' 

The reminiscence seemed to help distract those participants caught in a loop of conversation or thinking, giving them a break and something else to focus on.

In the coming weeks we would like to try using some of the cooking utensils and make some scones, letting smell and taste become part of this exploration. And Phil likes scones, especially cherry scones...

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

What exactly is a kitchenette?

Making Memories. Oldham – Day 2

Our partnership with Gallery Oldham is a kind of meditation on time, using the contents of reminiscence boxes as a rosary. We're collaborating with the Gallery Oldham and local participants to add material to the reminiscence boxes. Boxes are full of carefully selected objects from the past 100 years, gathered into thematic mini-collections – School, work, Ceramics, Royal Family, etc. These are taken around the local area and used to stimulate discussion among older people, or school children.

Today I shadowed Glenys from Gallery Oldham, who has had 5 years experience of working with these boxes and has added many of the objects and ideas herself. It was fascinating to see another approach to workshops and especially to witness the generative power of these little items to make a spell of the past come back to us. Glenys very kindly let me make notes and question her about the thinking behind her two sessions today.

The morning was a 'taster' at The Grange Supported Home, with a small group of participants and Dorothy the manager; the first box contained twenty or so ceramic objects, mostly related to the royal family. The discussion wound out from a small candlestick through to the dubious genaeology of the royals, via the vexed subject of kitchenettes. (What is a kitchenette? Opinions differ – and who actually has authority over these words anyway, or more broadly these memories?) Glenys presided over a very sweet-natured conversation, weaving in her own childhood and a little specialist knowledge about the objects, to ground us.

The afternoon was at High Barn dementia day care centre, a very different group. Here, Glenys produced her Cotton box, packed with objects and photos from the days of the cotton-manufacturing industry, which once defined Manchester and the North West of England. Many of the people in this group had worked in the mills and so they looked at the bobbins and knotters and paraphenalia of making not as pieces of industrial archaeology, but as pieces of their own lives. It was especially moving to me to see people whose memories play cruel tricks on them come alive with their own pasts, triggered by this haphazard box. One lady consistently described herself as stupid, foolish, dumb – the dementia clearly a huge embarrassment to her. And yet, as she spoke she took these inanimate objects and reconnected them with life.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Join the NAFFI

Lois writes: Yesterday I was in Bakewell at the Age UK Day Centre for my project working memories. I had prepared material to discuss with the group around workers rights, Unions and working conditions. Members of the group took a typically matter of fact approach to working conditions: 

You stood up for yourself. As long as you did you your work you where ok. There was no health and safety, no union, you could be sacked- if you didn't work there was no money. We never went off sick, no sick pay, you had to get better as quick as you could. A doctor would say get home and take two aspirins! Flora

The only member of a Union was Herbert who worked in a Steel Forge in Sheffield:

Of course I was a member of a union, you had to be in those days. Transport and General Union first of all strangely enough. You were expected to be in a union, just a thing you had to be in. You took things for granted- paid your dues and that was it.

The subject moved onto uniforms, most people wore overalls of some kind, freshly ironed and sparkling clean...

Mary explained: in the NAFFI wore a uniform, blue overalls and to go out in khaki skirt, top and hat, all to match. You got your uniform, it wasn't uncomfortable.

monoprint (detail) © Lois Blackburn 2012

Was a housemaid to start with, then the war started it was either join the Land Army, or the NAFFI, so I joined the NAFFI canteen. I trained as a manageress, to go here there and everywhere. We preferred the army than the air force, the air force thought they were a bit up-perty, a bit of a snob shall we say. Used to start about 10.00am then to 2.00pm, then later on 7.00 till 10.00 we all had different hours. Only thing we didn’t like was getting up at 6.00am, because we couldn’t do anything… But when they started blowing the bagpipes and the horns it would echo in the Nissan Huts. That’s when I met my husband, in the H.L.I, (Highland Light Infantry) up in Northumbria.

The Sergeant Major would go round with his big stick and flip the kilts up, check they had the right gear on. (our windows where to high to have a look!) If not, got JANKERS… do extra duties, the main one working in the NAFFI doing all the washing up.

Food we gave them depended on the day, hot dogs and cakes one day, and sandwiches. Mostly cigarettes they went for, they weren’t rationed there.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Carers meeting

(Lois writes) This afternoon I sat in on the Carers meeting, a monthly group hosted by Age UK salford in Swinton. Carers Ros, Vera, Shirley, Margaret, Pam, Renny and Betty with Age Uk Staff, Maria and Student Social Worker Dean. The conversation was frank, honest, at times upsetting, broken and relieved by laughter. I attempted to get a flavour of the conversation in my notes, which I have typed up here. I was very moved by the meeting, by the strength and dignity of the women and how they supported one and other. 

It’s hard to think about it when they’re ok- choosing a care home.

The guilt starts right at the beginning, whatever you’re doing you feel guilty. Right from the beginning, you think you can manage, then another thing happens and in your head your screaming- am I pushing myself to far?

Driving, it’s a real miss in their lives- I think particularly the men. They don’t want to give it up. He was clipping the curb and forgetting where he was going. I was feeling so guilty thinking about getting him to take his driving test again (people with a dementia diagnosis need to re-test) but we had to do something about it.

Sometimes I feel my life has just stopped, I’m just going to the shops then coming back, going to church and coming back… For us there are no buses on a Sunday, and a journey that would take 10 minutes in the car takes 2 hours by car.

Ray and Shirley

I was sat in that car park for half an hour crying when he first went in for respite. It took them a long long time for them to persuade me that he needed daycare, but he loved it. I didn’t want to admit to myself that I couldn’t cope. It comes on you slowly how bad things are getting. Guilt- and you’re thinking they couldn’t look after them as well as I can. I was going down rapidly, loosing weight, getting ill, after he went into care a number of friends said they were so worried about me… I was doing an ostrich.

They get so clingy, they rely on you for everything, you have to do it in little bits.

I had three nights away with me dad in Ambleside, the Hotel knew about me dad. He was fine during the day, but at night, in a room the didn’t know… at 1.30 in the morning the night porter rang saying; ‘he’s a bit distressed, doesn’t know his room number.’ I got down there and he was sitting there like a little lost child, it took me nearly an hour to calm him down he was so distressed and upset. It ended up with me having to lie next to him in his bed trying not to move, trying to calm him down. We finished our holiday early.

Norman and Betty

We’ve got the ‘Just Checking’ monitoring system going at the moment, we’re seeing how many times he’s getting up during the night (you use the system for people living on their own) It’s very useful.

If you see a blue butterfly near a hospital bed, it means someone has dementia, and needs assistance to make decisions.

Tricks and tips for holidays:

·               Lots of post-it notes up with ‘your at…’ or ‘we’re in…’ etc.
·               Tire him out during the day so he can sleep.
·               I would ring him up and say are you up? Are you dressed? Your clothes are on the chair next to you…
·               Make sure they have some I.D, name and a phone number
·               Let staff know they’ve got dementia
·               If you’re out anywhere go to the disabled toilets- there’s only one door there so they can’t go out any other way.
·               Once you’ve packed his case away move it away, or (my dad at least) will unpack it again and I’ve arrived somewhere with half the stuff missing.
·               Getting hold of a Radar key is not difficult, I just said he needed constant care, he needs supervision- you can’t tell a person with dementia to wait. Its especially good if you go away, how many toilets are closed… so it’s really useful.
·               The Police have a vulnerable adult list that they can be added to, then if they get lost they can easily access help. Bus drivers, taxi drivers should be aware of people with dementia, should be on the lookout, should have had some training.

Brother and sister Dave and Vera

He pretends he’s normal, most of them do- their making a liar out of you. I’ve got the guilt, am I making a mountain out of a molehill? You start to go within yourself, withdrawn into yourself, you feel on your own. That’s why coming here is so important, until you’ve experienced dementia, you don’t understand, that’s why this group is so important. After 5.00pm and at weekends the services aren’t there, we’re with them 24/7.

He was all nice in the doctors yesterday, but he was banging the table when he gets home, I was thinking, is he going to hit me?

If I feel well and good I can cope really well with him, but if I’m not feeling well I can loose it, then I feel guilty- he’s forgotten it in 5 minutes, but I feel so guilty.

Got to try and put the past into the past, and deal with the future and the now, and treat the person with dementia.

Some people will shoplift when they have dementia, if you let the staff know most are sympathetic, and its much less embarrassing. In most stores a vulnerable adult wont be prosecuted. The best thing to do is to let someone with dementia prone to shop
lifting carry something with them in a bag, gives them something in their hands.

My husbands in a care home now, you wouldn’t recognize him. Last time I visited I thought he’d had a stroke, he was walking so lopsided.

With dementia they shuffle, patterned carpets disturb them, you need to minimalise things for them, keep things un-cluttered, keep things clear. Keep patterns away, plain open planned spaces. Even patterned clothes can be confusing. Some people hallucinate with their dementia’s, then water infections and medications can also cause them.

I want to thank all of the carers for letting me sit in the session and Maria who gently and kindly guided us through the conversation with advice and personal insights. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

spaghetti maze: blog

As part of the Spaghetti Maze dementia project in Bury, individual participants' reminiscences, reflections and artworks will be put online in a specially commissioned blog at

Lois writes:

Visitors to the blog can search for each person taking part in the workshops, allowing their relatives, carers and our online audience to share these reminiscences, poetry and art. Navigate the blog using some of the recurring conversational topics, like mothers, family, nuns, whit week, etc. As a carer at the dementia day care centre said when I showed her the blog: 'It will be great to be able to use this blog to prompt memories with their own words and reminiscences.'

Mary and her 'Maw' - her mother depicted in a legendary large hat

"I’m just thinking on her:

Maw in the hat, she loved that hat

dressed up and went to the posh side

came back with a bloody thing as big as her."

(Maw poem extract - by Mary)

The blog will be updated regularly throughout the Spaghetti Maze project, then handed over to the host venues to continue.

Lost in the woods

Pinfold Centre Week 6, Spaghetti Maze

Our project at the Pinfold Centre in Bury is to work with people who have a dementia diagnosis, devising life stories for use as their memories are eroded by the disease.

We’re trying to find a space in life story work that speaks to the subjective, quirky, curious, complex mix that we all are. Life stories are of course forms of narrative and there are many kinds of narrative and narrators, including the unreliable.

Paula's family tree (detail)

The life-story books that are our guide are a wonderfully helpful resource for people dealing with dementia and who might need prompting in order to access their memories. The books contain lists of likes and dislikes, favourite people, family photos and much else. They are used by carers to get a sense of someone’s life and so that they’re able to talk with them and include them in activities. There is a side product of these books that is to do with legacy, the handing on of family stories and traditions and information.

However, these books can also be prescriptive and limiting. What other ways are there to tell these stories?

Our first explorations have been around the idea of family trees and the metaphor of trees more generally, with their subtle networks. Trees also bring along ideas of fairytales, renewal and growth – and being lost in the woods. It’s a kind of family tree centred around one person that we’ve in mind. Perhaps this could be a beginning for some people, from which all of the outgrowths of anecdotes, memories, artworks and poems can take shoot?

But families can also bring disastrous memories – of trauma and abuse - stories of which we’ve encountered in the sessions. And in other cases, the very fact that family memories are being displaced by dementia is upsetting enough – people don’t want to be reminded that memory itself is under attack. And so other shapes, other narratives are needed too…

Kathleen's family tree (detail)