Audrey is around 85, she generally prefers to sit quietly in her wheelchair, but there are occasions when she speaks up; every time she speaks up, words become precious. The residents who live at Linskill Park Extra Care Scheme range in age from 55 to 90+, and the majority have various long term health conditions. Some of the residents have been diagnosed with dementia. Audrey, had a stroke several years ago and I got to know her as well as some of the other residents during my six visits, as part of TWAM’s outreach reminiscence sessions, facilitated by Kath Boodhai. Yesterday was our goodbye party, and it was, in fact, unforgettable.
The reminiscence sessions with people with dementia follow a rather experimental approach. For the past two years Kath Boodhai and Sylvia Lowes, the occupational therapist from the NHS who works at Linskill Park, have tailored an interesting approach that combines art, craft, and museum objects. In their sessions they use museum collections that carry memories from the North East, as memory triggers; they try to stimulate different responses and arouse the five senses of the audience. Although, the sessions were planned for residents with dementia, older people who did not have dementia were encouraged to join in the group, as well. Sometimes, the people bring their own significant objects, and discuss them in a relaxed environment over a cup of tea or coffee, using a process that validates their personal experiences and memories. In other sessions, they create artworks inspired by museum objects or talk around a given topic, comparing how life has changed from the past.
When I met the group for the first time, I was amazed by the powerful relationship between Kath, Sylvia and the group members. Kath and Sylvia had developed a unique way of keeping a balance between helping the residents with their kinaesthetic and memory issues but at the same time encouraging them to build on their resilience and self-esteem. During these weeks I became part of their team. One day, I delivered a workshop around the idea of self-image and how it can be depicted in portraits, using images from Tyne and Wear Museums’ portrait collection. With the residents permission Kath took pictures of everyone, encouraging them to impersonate a famous person. When it was Audrey’s time to pose, she started waving her hand gently, keeping a thin smile. Everybody laughed: “Audrey, you look like the Queen!”
Six weeks after, all our work was exhibited on a blue screen in the main lounge of Linskill Park. Photographs from the sessions, the portraits from the photography workshops, bunting, glasswork, decorated tiles and photo-frames were placed on tables and display boards which adorned that empty room that slowly started to fill up with curious ladies. “Joyce looks lovely in this picture, doesn’t she?”, said one resident to another “She looks like 40!”. When I was putting together the photography exhibition on the blue screen with Joyce, another resident of Linskill Park, we had a little debate: she didn’t want her photos exhibited. Joyce has a brilliant mind; she curated with me a whole four panel screen with more than twenty photos, her eyes shined every time she proposed a change in the order of the photographs and her suggestions about putting labels under the photographs greatly improved the whole panel; yet, she wasn’t confident enough to put her own photographs into display. Secretly, I put on a close-up photo of her, right in the centre of the exhibition. It was the most commented on photo by everyone, it overshadowed even the artworks; and when Joyce found out my little mischief, she couldn’t be angry: everybody was complimenting her bright smile in the picture.
At two o’clock, Helen Moffitt choreographer from the Dance City, who is a new partner with the outreach program, started her first dance and movement session with the ladies and the few gentlemen that had gathered in the hall. Inspired from objects we had brought from the Discovery Museum for the day, Helen warmed up the group with some exercises for the hands, the head and the shoulders. “Come on senioritas, move your hands in the air and strike a dramatic pose, then the rest of the group will try to mimic your pose; dance is all about sharing”, she said inspired by the little Spanish doll that we had brought from Discovery Museum. One after the other every person in the room moved their hands: gently, energetically to the rhythm; there was no right or wrong pattern of movement or rhythm in our group.
Following this session, the room was livelier than ever; it was the right time for our reminiscence quiz. The attendants grouped in teams of four, they got pens and papers and Kath started asking the questions, all of which were inspired from the last weeks’ sessions. She asked about the Easter Parade in North Shields, where Audrey used to go with her mum every Good Friday; and the opening of the Tyne Bridge, that Flo –another resident- had witnessed back in 1928. Lastly, Kath asked about Wilkinson’s Lemonade Factory which was an air raid shelter in WW2 and was destroyed by the Germans, costing the life of hundreds. It was the same calamity where Alan’s father volunteered to rescue the people hemmed inside, and he was afterwards awarded a medal of honour.
After three hours of light chatter, gift exchange and laughter, it was about time to end our last session. We muted the music, put the museum objects back to their boxes and invited Alan to sing a goodbye song. Alain is 85, he is tall, handsome, energetic but ‘forgetful’ as he playfully admits. When he was young he was part of a barbershop chorus and sang for the queen herself! He stood up and he poised for the song. He sung ‘Bring Him Home’ and his voice was smooth, gracious and warm.
Leaving Linskill Park we said goodbye to all the amazing people that took part in our outreach sessions: Joyce, Alan, Isabelle, Peter, Suzanne, Dolores, Irene, Mabel, Evelyn, Suzan, Flo and Audrey, with the promise to see them again in the future. Kath plans to initiate the Dance and Dementia program during the summer. This program will involve movement inspired from the museum collections and the personal items of the residents. This will be a good opportunity for everybody to come together again. I am sure we will have many things to discuss and so many things to remember.
The sessions at Linskill Park are delivered as part of the partnership between TWAM’s Outreach ‘Working with people with dementia’ program in partnership with Northumbria Healthcare National Health Service Foundation Trust