Saturday, 20 September 2014

Remembering the past can improve the present for people with dementia

From todays Guardian newspaper 



Malcolm Jones works as a reminiscence arts practitioner, using creative tools to help older people communicate

               
The smell of an old brand of soap, photograph or war object can help trigger a memory. Photograph: Colin Underhill/Alamy
I get up around 6:30, check emails and attempt to raise my 10-year-old daughter in time for school while grabbing something vaguely healthy for breakfast. Then I head to whichever care home I’m working in that day.


I work with the charity Age Exchange as a reminiscence arts practitioner – running projects with both active and frail older people in care settings. Reminiscence arts is a unique way for artists, therapists and practitioners to work with older people, particularly those with dementia, to evoke and inspire their memories and imaginations. We use techniques derived from dance, visual arts, drama, literature and music to learn about people, help them communicate and build new relationships, despite the challenges dementia can pose.


Practitioners come from many walks of life: visual artists, musicians, actors, occupational therapists, arts therapists and social workers. I’ve worked in theatre, education, community arts and inter-generational projects. I’m currently focusing on a research project for Age Exchange, exploring how reminiscence arts improve the wellbeing of people with dementia.


When I arrive at the care home I go to the person’s room for a one-to-one session. They can be very frail and have difficulty communicating. I try to connect with them by introducing myself, smiling and perhaps holding their hand. I’ll play music or bring something from our memory boxes. The smell of an old brand of soap, photograph or war object can help trigger a memory that the person might be able to tell me about, or articulate using their body language.


In the afternoon I’ll often run a group session with my fellow practitioner, Susan. These involve six to eight people chosen by the care home, and two care staff to provide support. Susan and I prepare the session together, either basing it on what people have enjoyed previously, or using a set theme, such as holidays, a local landmark or an anniversary. We’ll use sensory objects – even a colourful silk scarf may evoke a memory when gently skimmed over peoples’ hands. I’ve had some funny moments using costumes and hats in the past – giving a cap to one man immediately triggered his Norman Wisdom impression!
Malcolm Jones
Malcolm Jones: ‘Our work at Age Exchange is based on compassion and a real desire to learn about people.’ Photograph: PR
We find ways to encourage interaction within the group, such as throwing and bouncing balls of different sizes and textures. People make eye contact with the person they are about to throw the ball to, which helps them relax and begin to recognise each other. Susan is a visual artist, so sessions often include handicrafts, art or storytelling.


Our group is currently working on a play about childhood and growing up, using rhymes and street games with lots of rhythm and familiar words. We’re going to add stories about being naughty and happy, and about evocative tastes and smells. As people forget lines and words, plays like this have to be improvised each week. We have 15 sessions left in this project, so with prompts and music we’ll be able to create something special to perform at the end.
We finish with tea, biscuits and music. We’ll chat or play instruments, clapping and moving to a lively song, before a 10-minute debrief with staff and each other.


Our work at Age Exchange is based on compassion and a real desire to learn about people. We help them understand who they were and who they are, in whatever way possible. It’s incredibly rewarding for everyone, including us practitioners. Care staff learn a lot by participating alongside residents, and we provide training on how to use reminiscence arts to build relationships with older people and find out about their life histories.


On the drive home I often have to detach myself from the sadness I see during my work and focus on the fun and creativity instead. Dinner, a glass of wine with my partner and a bedtime story with my daughter bring the day to an end. She tells me about school and I think of some of the memories that were shared during my sessions. I’m often left thinking about how closely all our lives are woven together.





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