Friday, 22 March 2013

Acceptance, denial and the losing of marbles

'You are my sunshine' badge

We're working in partnership with Gallery Oldham developing the use of memory boxes for reminiscence amongst older people, including people with a dementia diagnosis.

March 13, Oldham

Philip writes:

Let's not pussyfoot, dementia can bring terror and anger and bitterness among many other calling cards. The work we're doing with memory isn't a panacea for those things, we're not doctors, but we are a distraction. Rather than allowing participants in one of our groups to enter a negative mindset, we can help to short-circuit the blues and the fury – sometimes.

This day in Oldham gives examples of both situations and how we dealt with them. Thematically we were dealing with the subject of pubs and the social life around them, but we were also dealing with participants' very particular needs.

Our first session regularly includes two people who have a dementia diagnosis. One of them is perfectly aware of this and will 'own' the illness, talk about it, and try to negotiate around it. The other person is in denial of what's happening, has a tendency towards anger. The two are chalk and cheese as they say and often fight. We only recently found out about the unspoken dementia - and it therefore took us some time to realise that there's possibly an underlying issue. Dementia is the elephant in the room and like any unresolved issue it causes tension. It's a tricky situation and one that we've so far defused by using the creative activities and conversation. We've also had after-workshop discussions with all concerned. However it's possible that we'll have to ask the aggressor to leave the group. Our duty is always to make sure that we run a 'safe place to play' and occasionally this needs reinforcing with firmness. But for now distraction is working fine.

The other session is with a group of six to eight people, most with a diagnosis of dementia/s, at varying stages. This group have generally been a very 'up' session for us. Although there are tremendous difficulties for some participants to overcome, there are also two key advantages - acceptance and very importantly humour. Laughing can't solve complex problems in itself, but it helps to de-stress a situation and in doing so we all move on. These sessions use a higher mix of game-playing than we'd usually employ (singing, playing marbles, etc.) but the play also quite evidently brings delight. Interestingly, here is also the venue where the deepest political discussion takes place – one of the participants is very hard left, another is a war refugee and others are ex-mill-workers with no illusions about their position in society. This isn't a rosy-glow gathering, but it is a fascinating, funny, damn good time.

The game of marbles we played there brought particular delight. It was a small riot. Marble skills of 80-plus years were employed. Particular hilarity ensued when the staff had to dodge the little glass balls of peril. There was perhaps an element of revenge in the joke, but most of all laughter that was shared equitably.


1. Look at some examples of beer mats, bottle tops, etc. Invite participants to draw their own bottle top or favourite drink. Perhaps the drink might incorporate their own name and a famous slogan (eg. Alfred, probably the best grandpa in the world. Gladys is good for you, etc.) Make the composition circular and it can become a badge.

2. Word association game. This is an excellent way of getting a discussion going, or stimulate ideas for writing. Our discussion this time was themed around pubs and the word used are listed below. We often use pairs of opposites so that the game is more intriguing.



a tot/saspirilla

landlord/Salvation Army

pork scratchings/apple pie

tavern/show me the way to go home

Reet's glass of Babycham

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