The Little China Clogs

Apprentices Clare and Hilary with Rio at the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today reminiscence session

It’s not often that you get to travel the world on a Monday but recently I did just that, escaping to the sun of Barbados and the oriental delights of China via Brighton, Southend and Cuba (my geography was always appalling) then zooming back to my childhood via a pair of tiny blue and white china clogs (of which more later). 

I met Rio and her husband Tony driving to Turkey in their car.  They’d loaded it up with suitcases, stashed their chocolates in the front so they didn’t get squashed and then set off for Salzburg, Bulgaria and Istanbul, where they’d had to give a backhander to the police. 

It was quite an afternoon.  In fact, I was at a reminiscence session for people with dementia and their family carers in Belsize Park, London.  A mood of inclusivity, sensitivity, warmth and sheer good fun permeated the place, producing a world devoid of labels, of them (with dementia) and us (without), unencumbered by bureaucracy, titles or paperwork.  A world built on human connections.

Tony and Rio’s car was formed of four chairs.  The suitcases were empty props. The chocolates were imagined.  But we were there, with them.  Transported back in time to when the couple used to travel through Europe with a motor full of clothes to sell in markets and bazaars.  Rio, it turns out, sailed to America on the QE2 not once, but twice.  Tony didn’t go “because he couldn’t afford it”.  When the pair started singing New York, New York, at first Rio couldn’t remember the words but with a little coaxing from her man and encouraging smiles from friendly faces, she was soon belting out the lyrics.  It was wonderful to watch.  Reminiscence therapy – using that day’s theme of holidays and travel – at its very best. 

There were over 30 of us sharing memories, singing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, acting out vignettes of our travels and our lives and – when the picnic was produced – enjoying ice-cream cones and homemade drizzle cake, as well as Chinese treats. 

When I introduced myself to 82-year-old Gloria she enveloped me in her arms.  This warm, expansive Barbadian developed dementia about seven years ago and has been living with her daughter Natasha in Kentish Town for the last six.   

The two of them have been coming to the weekly two-hour sessions for ten weeks and Natasha explained that it offers her mum friendship and social interaction while also stimulating her memories.  “It changes her mood – she is happy and jovial for a couple of hours afterwards and on the way home she is very talkative. She may not remember the session but she knows it gives her a good feeling”. 

It also, quite obviously, benefits 47-year-old Natasha, who gave up her job as a team leader in customer services to care for her mum.  “I do find it difficult and some days I cry my eyes out.  You feel isolated so coming here helps because you don’t feel like you are the only person in the world going through this.  The group gives mum and I laughter, the best medicine of all”. 

Angela used to come with her husband Kenneth before he died last September, just before his 80th birthday.   Having suffered a brain haemorrhage 15 years previously, he then slowly developed dementia.  The couple had been married for 57 years and Angela told me that attending the reminiscence project was wonderful because when they were at home so many things were geared towards Kenneth but the sessions were for them both, as a couple.  She left it for a few months after her husband died but then thought she’d like to have the experience “from the other side”, as a volunteer.  She’s found it cathartic and, like me, believes it’s all very cleverly done. 

The seeming spontaneity of the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today afternoons belies the tremendous thought and expertise that goes into their preparation.  I arrived an hour before the afternoon kicked off, but already people were loading tables with shells, postcards, sun hats, (blue) passports and origami boats.  Three of them were volunteers, the rest were apprentices learning the reminiscence techniques developed by Pam Schweitzer, a woman whose contribution to the field of reminiscence and dementia earned her, in 2000, an MBE.

Initially a theatre director, she found herself drawn to reminiscence work and in 1983 founded the Age Exchange Theatre Trust, creating and directing 30 professional productions based on older people’s memories that toured nationally and internationally.  Four years later Pam opened the world’s first reminiscence centre in London, providing a focus for training, and in 1993, she founded the European Reminiscence Network with partners in 16 European countries. 

Pam Schweitzer in holiday mode

Talking to Pam, watching her as she leads the apprentices and volunteers in a warm-up session to loosen their joints and vocal chords before the attendees arrive, it is obvious she’s a born leader.  She knows how to project her voice, how to run a show, how to draw people out.

She also has a vision and a strategy, setting up the apprenticeship scheme six years  ago to ensure that the reminiscence project can advance without her (though hard to believe, she is now into her 70s).  The apprentices attend two-day training courses across Europe and beyond (there are schemes in Japan, Singapore, America and Canada).  Trainees attend 12 sessions and submit a 3,000 word essay to show what they have learnt before becoming accredited facilitators of the European Reminiscence Network.

The two day course costs £120, as does the 12 week apprenticeship scheme with debriefs and mentoring support.  The network has received £10,000 from the Big Lottery and smaller amounts from Camden Carers, Westminster Arts and the Greenwich Dementia Action Group.

Apprentice and horticultural therapist Rosie Hollands told me that week by week she sees people with dementia “opening out and relaxing”, adding that you never know what’s going to trigger a memory.

That’s certainly true.  On Gloria and Natasha’s table, among the postcards and shells was a memento I recognised immediately.  As soon as I saw it I was ten again, standing on my bed, reaching up to slide open the glass fronted cabinet and pull out a tiny pair of blue and white china clogs.  I’d not thought of them for over half a century. 

On a warm March afternoon in 2018 I cradled the miniature shoes in my palm, weighing the memories – of mum and dad, my much older sister with whom I’d once shared my room, our matching rose-sprigged eiderdowns – letting the smells and emotions wash over and through me, transporting me back to my childhood.  It was a magical, unexpected moment that brought home to me, quite literally, the power of reminiscence therapy.  I knew that if I ever reached the stage where I could no longer remember much of my past, or the significance of those little shoes, the sight and touch of them would forever evoke in me happiness, security and love. 

The next training and apprenticeship scheme starts on 14 May, and details can be found here.

Natasha and her mum Gloria, holding the little china clogs

  

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Old Fools

Mark Arends & Frances Grey give stunning performances in Tristan Bernays’ Old Fools at the Southwark Playhouse

Two people, a piano stool and Tristan Bernays’ script are all that constitute Old Fools, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, and there isn’t even a linear plot.  Yet somehow, in just 60 minutes, we’re taken into the world of Vivian and Tom, from their first flirtatious dance, through the trials of early careers to the ups and downs of parenthood and his short-lived affair, which nearly splits them apart.  It doesn’t, they make up, because at the end of the day, they love each other.  But then Tom develops dementia and there is, for Vivian, “nothing left for me to love”.

It is a brave, raw piece that makes the audience work.  And laugh and cry.  It is both tender and brutal.  It is, says Bernays, a relationship play in which one of the characters happens to have dementia.

He may not know it, but Bernays could have been speaking at an Alzheimer’s conference.  He’s seen and drawn the man, Tom – with his precarious, impecunious musician’s career, his dreams and loves (of his partner and their daughter) and his selfish, thoughtless flaws – not the condition.   He has portrayed, too, the wife, the translator, the lover-turned-carer-turned-who-knows-what whose sense of self and identity is as broken and lost as that of her partner.   “I can’t do this anymore Tom,” she tells the man who once had the power to make her melt and who now sits, curled in a care home, silent, head bent, gripping her hand until she cries out in pain.  “If I keep coming here there will be nothing of me left”.  This is dementia in all its destructive, ugly truth.

 

Mark Arends & Frances Grey in Old Fools

 

Incredibly, there are also moments of lightness and laughter, of witty banter between the two of them in their earlier days.  “I’ll call you.”  “Call me what?”  “Beautiful”.  Vivian is, of course, a linguist.   And it’s words, language eliding, slipping and sliding that guide us, the audience, through the choppy, time-travelling waters of this play.  There is nothing else – no costume changes, no scenery, just two extraordinary young actors in Mark Arends and Frances Grey, breathing life into Bernays’ lines.

After he betrays her, Vivian throws Tom out.  Devastated at what he’s done he pleads to come back home to be with Viv and their daughter.  Home, for Tom, is “you and me and us and Alice” – an often repeated refrain.  Home is wherever they are – this too has a poignancy for anyone whose life has been touched by dementia.  Those with the condition and their families often speak of “coming home” when they are with people they love in a safe, understanding environment.

The other constant echo, the soundtrack to the couple’s lives, is the song to which they are dancing when they first meet, and when we first meet them – Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight”.   It is the song, the soul note, to which the pair of them keep coming back, to which Tom, even with his advanced dementia, will always connect.  Its lyrics, set to the familiar haunting tune, are almost unbearably pertinent in the context of Tom’s failing mind.  “Some day, when I’m awfully low, When the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you”.

But will he?  Will she?  How much of what they’ve accrued over a lifetime together, will remain?  At the heart of this intense, challenging play is what dementia does to a relationship.  What is left when memories go?

It ends with the two of them locked in an embrace.   They are still, just, dancing together to their song, but he’s forgotten the words.  The record may keep turning, but the next step for Tom – as his medical consultant tells him – is not as simple as that.  Each case of this most feared and misunderstood condition is unique and unpredictable.

Old Fools, produced in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK, reminds us all, not just how “really bloody hard” all relationships are (to quote Bernays), but of the painful human cost of dementia, a condition that has only relatively recently come to public attention despite being the biggest killer in the UK.

It is wonderful that producer and director Sharon Burrell, To The Moon and Making Productions believed in Bernays’ short, bitter-sweet play (he describes it as “heart-warming and heart-breaking and I’d go with that) – and impressive that Arends and Grey turn in such deft, nuanced performances in the most intimate, exposed, and unforgiving of arenas.

Plays such as Old Fools, Florian Zeller’s The Father, Matthew Seager’s In Other Words, Inspector Sands’ The Lounge, all of which I’ve reviewed, bring the thorny subject of dementia quite literally into the spotlight, centre stage.  They raise awareness of it, reduce the stigma surrounding it, inform the public about it in brilliant, shocking, creative ways.  And I applaud them all.

 

Old Fools plays until 7 April at Southwark Playhouse & you can book tickets here. 

 

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Somebody I Used To Know

Wendy Mitchell’s memoir, Somebody I Used To Know, gives us dementia from the inside out, from the first, fearful inklings that something is wrong to the nitty-gritty of daily life with a progressive disease that gradually forces her to give up those things (from her work to her running) that make her who she is.

As such it is one of the most honest, vivid accounts of living with this condition – in Wendy’s case, Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed when she was just 58 – that I’ve come across. It is also much more.  It’s a multi-layered book: reflective of Wendy’s no-nonsense character yet also offering profound insights into the resilience of the human spirit.

A single mum with two daughters (their dad left when they were seven and four), Wendy has always been independent, thrifty and organised.  She’s also been very busy, working for 20 years as a non-clinical team leader in the NHS and, ironically, renowned for her elephant-like memory.

This all changes when, out for one of her regular runs along the River Ouse, she falls, for no apparent reason.  In fact, she’s suspected that something’s been wrong for a while though she can’t quite put her finger on it.  And then she falls again.  And again.

It takes over three months, hospital stays, neurological tests and scans, two months off work before the D word is mentioned in a letter from her clinical psychologist.  “It is possible that this is a profile of the early stages of a dementing process”.

“But it can’t be that,” her (now adult) daughter Sarah says.  “You’re so fit and healthy.  It doesn’t seem fair”.

And of course, it isn’t. Wendy’s old life has veered off track, she’s on her way somewhere else – or, as she sees it and tells it, to becoming someone else.   “We wouldn’t get on now, you and I,” she tells her younger self.  “We like different things.  You love the hustle and bustle of a busy city, whereas some days I lose hours just looking out of a window at the view.  Just looking.  Just still”.

Wendy with her daughters Gemma & Sarah

It is through acknowledging the changes taking place in herself that 62-year-old Wendy realises that her dementia – hated as it is by her, as much for the havoc it will wreak on her daughters’ lives as on her own – has given her a rare perspective, focussing the mind “in a very special way”.   Yes, it is gradually stealing everything that made her who she once was.  Yet she is still Wendy.  Still determined.  Still strong.  She knows that dementia cannot take away the love she feels for her daughters (which permeates the book), or they for her.

Wendy may experience “a real, visceral grief at saying another goodbye, this time to baking”, anger and frustration at being abandoned post-diagnosis by an NHS for which she’s worked for two decades, and mortification when she forgets her daughter Sarah’s birthday for the first time in 34 years.   But she can, and does, start a daily blog to serve as her memory (which ultimately enables this memoir to be written), set reminders to ping on her Ipad, become a Dementia Friends Champion, campaign to raise awareness of the condition, promote and participate in research.  Her new life becomes as busy, in different ways, as that of the person she used to know, and be. Continue Reading →

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Singing Together

Anyone out there remember Singing Together?  It ran on BBC radio for 60 years from 1939, when it was introduced to reach schoolchildren evacuated all over the country during the war.  At 11 o’clock every Monday morning school teachers across Britain would tune in and their pupils would, well, sing together.

Back in the ‘60s, my hair in plaits, I was one of them and, hopeless warbler as I was (still am), to this day I can remember the friendly voice of presenter William Appleby and many of the words to Pretty Peña, also where I was sitting in my primary school classroom (front left beside a mesmerising painting of a cliff soaring over a turquoise sea) when I belted them out.

The great thing about the weekly programme, first aired on the home service for schools and then Radio 4, was that no matter where we children were, for 20 minutes at the start of the week, we would all be singing the same songs together.  It gave a sense of comforting continuity and community which, even now, almost half a century later, I can conjure up.

I must admit I’d forgotten all this until I recently attended the launch of an important new report by the Commission on Dementia and Music, and no less a person than the internationally renowned soprano Lesley Garrett reminded me.

It turns out that Miss Garrett CBE, as well as having the most gorgeous voice, is patron of the Lost Chord, a charity dedicated to improving the quality of life and well-being of those with dementia, using music.

Like so many of us involved in the dementia sector, Miss Garrett has a personal interest in the subject.  She told us all that when her Auntie Joan (known as AJ) developed Alzheimer’s – and even when she could no longer remember her own children’s names – “the sound of music she adored sung by someone she adored could bring her alive.  She would open her eyes, shake, and tears would pour down her face”. Continue Reading →

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