This is an account of a reminiscence session with people who have a dementia diagnosis, using 'memory boxes' as a spark for remembering. The boxes are filled with memorabilia, each box themed around a particular aspect of life – school, holidays, royalty, etc. We've been commissioned by the Barings Foundation to work alongside Gallery Oldham on development of the use of such memory boxes.
The following is based on Philip's field notes, written as the session was actually taking place. We're learning from the approaches taken by Gallery Oldham, observing and trying to see possibilities for areas of development. We've noticed the power of objects to ground people who struggle with the process of remembering. In this session that shock of remembering was palpable – people actually jerked reflexively when they saw some objects. This session was led by Glenys from Gallery Oldham, at High Barn day centre.
Philip's notes, taken October 2013
Glenys starts by holding up the first object, a rectangle of stone the size of a bar of soap: 'D'you remember the donkey stone?'
(Donkey stones were used for cleaning and smoothing the front doorstep and some of the front stonework of a house, like a stone brillo pad.)
'Oh yes and you smoothed it over...' says one participant.
People are jolted by the object, its charisma. But they struggle to follow the associated conversation and questions, which the previous group had enjoyed. This particular client group evidently need time to absorb and respond. Pauses are vital, to allow depth of response from participants.
Conversely, if people from the group also interrupt the flow, this also means participants don't trust the safety of the direction; there's confusion rather than a theme to hang onto. With the clash of the effect of various dementias in one space there is a great deal of distraction and interruption. Some authority is necessary, but how overt?
More objects are passed around the room. The sense of touch speaks loud. Powerful effect that the objects have on the participants – cutting through dementia haze. The presence of these talismans of the past is almost magical. They are far stronger than photos or even conversational clues. Could this be further reinforced by using smell and sound? Noticeable how this group are unable to engage with one another fully in this particular situation. The conversation is directed towards the objects rather than one another. People speak to the thing itself, as if it's their own raw past.
'I feel 99 now' – a wry observation.
'Going back some years now.'
Rich memories here in this group of battered minds and yet untapped. How to reach through? Most people here are in their 70s and 80s – what a vast swathe of history they've lived between them; and how fascinating it would be to know how it is to be the custodian of all this memory and yet to have it shorn away by amnesia: one woman says, 'I think I should know, but I can't describe it.'
'Everybody is a memory.' Another participant makes this very beautiful remark, but is lost in the flurry of individual conversations and the objects. Key observations like this could be noted perhaps and fed back to the group...
'We have learned something here today haven't we?' says W, without any confidence, as if she's been attending a lesson part-understood. Lois and I talk about us learning from her, rather than her from us. W then tries to pass on one of her memories, struggling hard to recollect. She is full of the need to share this information – it's clearly compelling her, the force of the need to tell. It occurs to me that this is perhaps one of the most fundamental human characteristics, to remember and to pass on memory – this is how we make ourselves and by making our history pass on the essence of our understanding. But the words fail. She's cheery, despite this set back: 'We can laugh at it all,' she says.
- Power of objects to reach people with a dementia diagnosis
- these people need time to reflect on the objects and respond
- poignancy of age and memory loss can hit people heavily (eg. 'I feel 99.')
- deep-seated need for people to have a chance to articulate their memory experiences