Snapshots: reflections on the Remembering Together project
By Sarah Gudgin
It's not often that we take time to reflect on or to celebrate a person's life or achievements. Even rarer to have our own life story encapsulated into a specific artwork.
However this was the inspiration for all the diverse artworks that feature in this series of nine blogs.
The seed for Snapshots grew out of a desire to capture the process and explore what making memory based artworks means, both to the individuals whose lives and experiences have been the stimulus for the art pieces, but also to the artists who have created these bespoke artworks.
As one of the contributors to the Remembering Together project, I understand some of the challenges of creating a memory based art piece. However whilst taking these photographs, I also grew to appreciate the importance of creating memory based art work as a vehicle for re-connecting people with dementia with their past, whilst leaving a lasting legacy for preserving precious memories in the future.
I interviewed the artists, visited each couple at their home and wrote about the experience. On my journey I used these 'snapshots' to reflect on what I found.
This series of nine blogs was published weekly beginning in Dementia Awareness week 2016.
Snapshots was part of the Remembering Together RYCT reminiscence sessions and apprenticeship scheme run by Westminster Arts with the European Reminiscence Network.
9. Listening together
with Barbara and Louise
Barbara still lives on her own and at 81, these days she needs a bit of extra help from her daughter Louise, who pops in to Barbara's flat on a daily basis to make sure Mum is OK.
Barbara is a very independent person and still fit and active. If she forgets what day it is or what she should be doing when, there are lists with times to remind her, so that she can tick things off as she accomplishes her daily tasks. This also helps her to manage her schedule, her medication and her food. Barbara likes order and routine, it helps with her anxiety and it's helping to keep her as self-sufficient as possible.
When I arrive in her immaculately kept flat she proudly shows me her amazing view over the rooftops of London. Louise has thoughtfully brought out some of the photographs of the Remembering Together sessions to act as a memory prompt for her mum. Barbara is doing her best to remember, but she's got other things on her mind and Barbara's worried that she might not get a newspaper at the corner shop.
After some reassurance, Barbara turns her attention back to the photos laid out on a coffee table. Although she cannot immediately remember who's who and what happened in all the images, with a little patience and understanding some things do start to come back. Fortunately, I can remember the sessions, as well as details of Barbara's life story which she shared with the group, so mentioning these, seems to stir her own memory and the clouds begin to clear.
Now that I have Barbara's interest, I ask whether she enjoyed the Remembering Together sessions. "Yes, it was a nice time each week. I enjoyed it," she tells me, "It was a nice crowd, a nice balance and combination of people, the group worked well and I liked the story telling and the songs." During the twelve weekly sessions there were many opportunities to meet other people with dementia and reminisce whilst doing fun activities, and we chat about this.
I'd also like to know what Louise thought of the sessions. "I had a lovely time too. It was lovely to see my mum relaxed and enjoying chatting and listening. It was valuable time together!" Was it helpful to meet other carers I ask? "Yes," says Louise," It was my only contact with other carers. It was useful time with people in a similar situation and to learn from their experience!"
I've also come to find out about the personal artwork which was created for Barbara, by Eugenia Hall who has a background as a theatre director as well as a BBC radio drama producer. These days, Eugenia has a growing interest in stories and creative writing, working with older people. She's used these skills to create an audio recording of mother and daughter in conversation, so that they and their family can listen back at any time.
I'm keen to hear how Eugenia made the recordings. "I built on the experience of Remembering Together sessions, using notes and pictures that had been taken about aspects of their lives. Louise also brought photographs of Barbara's past life as reminders – along with cake! I took my recording equipment and spent a couple of hours in conversation with them and then edited this afterwards, adding sounds and music to complement the conversation."
Having worked as an oral historian for many years myself, I'd like to know what Eugenia would say were the particular challenges of making an artwork using someone else's memories? "The need to enable good conversations, to elicit those memories – since their own words are the stuff of the artwork - and in my case having a recording set-up that was relaxed enough."
I'm also curious to know how the process has informed Eugenia's own practice? "I have mostly been working with fictional characters and stories. However recently I have worked with older people's life stories, so doing this piece has built on that. It's also given me more of an awareness of working in 'interview' situations – and opening up more ideas about how sound recordings can be useful in work with older people including those with dementia."
At Barbara's, we pop on the Dancing Days CD and tells the story of how Barbara met her husband Ron. The soundtrack includes one of their favourite songs and as soon as the mellow music is played, I can see an instant change in the atmosphere in the room as the melody of Sunny Side of the Street lifts the mood, Barbara relaxes and seems more at ease as we listen together. Does it bring back happy memories, I ask? "Oh yes" smiles Barbara, "I was thrilled to get it! It brings back memories of my husband."
It's time for me to be on my way and to venture back into the sunny street myself. It's been lovely seeing Barbara and Louise; I do hope that Barbara continues to have the confidence in herself to go out and do the things she enjoys. "Of course" she smiles, "But first of all, I want to get my newspaper!" I smile too, and something tells me that it won't be long before Barbara will be ticking this off her list later today!
- Sarah Gudgin
8. The fabric of life
with Pilar and Emily
Today I am meeting a couple who both met and fell in love with each other after they'd both had children and their own marriages had fallen apart. This couple had to wait some time to get married for a second time, because the law did not allow for lesbian and gay couples to tie the knot until 2014, although they had been a couple for many years.
Despite her dementia diagnosis, Pilar has just returned from an extended visit down under to see one of her daughters and her family in Australia. "You must have really missed each other," I suggest, on hearing the news. "Not really!" jokes Emily, "I enjoyed the peace and quiet!" "Me too!" laughs Pilar, "And no one to nag me either!"
We are anything but quiet as we drink tea together and I catch up with this couple, discussing friends, family, the past and the future. As they share their individual journeys towards self-discovery and each other, I am struck by how candid they both are about their lives, their struggles and their sexuality. This was a central theme and the subject of a film about Emily and Pilar which was made by Gabriel Prado, one of the apprentices on the Remembering Together programme, with film-maker Anna Cady. I asked him to explain what had inspired him.
"My inspiration was the relationship between Pilar and her uncle, Moyo. She had told me that her uncle was a very important person to her, since she had grown up without her dad in her life. Pilar told me that Moyo had taught her to respect and love life. I was also particularly keen to see the honest way Pilar and Emily talked about their relationship as a lesbian couple and how they helped others to come out. I found it strange to hear older people talk with such integrity and I was so moved by this!"
I wanted to understand how working with the couple and making the film had informed Gabriel's own practice as a dancer and dance therapist.
"I am interested in the tension between knowing and not knowing," he told me. "My dancing, my improvisation is about unfinished histories of ourselves and others... This is me. The experience of making this artwork gave me the opportunity to think about my own life and inspired me to create an autobiographical dance performance about my family experience. It also prompted me to return to Mexico and visit my great-great grandmother's house, in order to take photos and reminisce about my childhood. The fact that I took part in the Remembering Together project has helped me to realise the importance of family and to honour my relatives, both living and deceased."
I'm also interested to hear what Emily and Pilar made of the Remembering Together sessions. Pilar is very enthusiastic and tells me, "We thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, but on the first day we wanted to leave! We were worried about being patronised and we could not believe everyone was so nice! But by the end, we knew they were genuine and we loved it! We loved it! We loved the games, we liked everyone and we wanted to make friends with everyone."
Emily is equally positive. "We liked it and we wanted it to go on all the time! We loved learning about a person's life so quickly, we wanted it to go on and on."
Unusually in this case, the couple were also the subject of another art piece made for them by Deborah Lewis, a former teacher, who trained as a tailor and pattern cutter and now makes made-to-measure suits. Debs used her knowledge of Pilar and Emily's story from the Remembering Together Sessions to design bespoke fabric, using photographs, images and words connected to the couple. She used the fabric to make a shirt with the idea it would fit one of their grandchildren. It's a very unique art work piece and I asked Debs to tell me something about what had inspired her to make it.
"During the home visit it became clear that they adored their grandchildren and talking about them. Their home was full of photos of them. It was the couple's main shared interest. I took the relevant images from the Remembering Together sessions and family photos that they gave me, along with photos of art images they had made on the course, such as a postcard and lyrics to a Spanish song that Pilar loved."
We talk about what were the particular challenges of making an artwork using someone else's memories. Deborah thinks it over and says, "There is a need to be very sensitive, especially in this case where the couple's children and grandchildren were with previous partners."
I ask Pilar and Emily what was it like getting so much attention. They both laugh, "We enjoyed making the film and talking about our lives and sexuality." So how did it make them feel to see their memories in the artworks? Emily elaborates, "We were gob-smacked! We were so impressed that someone had taken the time and trouble. Pilar was impressed too. The artwork has some great images of her whole life, including the hospital where she worked."
As I take some photographs, Emily and Pilar spend time together looking at the images on the shirt. Pilar seems delighted to recognise people that she once knew and to discover the phrases from the Spanish song which Deborah has included in the design, and she starts to sing. Looking at the shirt has sparked off her memories.
I can see that the effect of the artwork is great, it has encouraged Pilar to look at the photos, remember the past and find her voice! Now both these amazing art pieces have become a storytelling thread and part of the pattern of the fabric of Pilar and Emily's life story as they continue to connect and weave their memories together.
- Sarah Gudgin
7. Sisters who are friends
with Carol and Suzy
There is no better friend than a sister, and Carol and Suzy are sisters who have never been apart. As girls they have grown up together and they have continued to live together as adults. Their relationship has endured over time and continues to evolve, as now they are growing old together.
Carol and Suzy have been with each other all of their lives and the closeness of their symbiotic relationship is shown in their shared memories and funny stories, the turn of phrase that they both use, as well as the way that they finish off each other's sentences and embellish each other's stories. As sisters they complement and mirror each other in many ways. Today as they cope with various challenging health problems and learn to live with Carol's dementia, their interdependence has grown, defining them both as the carer of the other.
When I visited Carol and Suzy at home, they brought out the family photograph album to show me and we reminisced together over several cups of tea. They told stories about their beloved parents and their Jewish family which were fascinating and engaging and I felt very drawn into their world.
As I've got to know them better, through the Remembering Together programme and subsequent visits, I wanted to reflect and celebrate the longevity of their unique relationship in the art work that I was to create for them.
In the art work that I made, I tried to show different periods of their lives and to include details which had come up in the Remembering Together sessions, such as stories about Peter the doll and Carol's unusual Star of David pendant. Also to bring in the present, such as the flat where they have lived most of their lives (which at the time they were thinking of selling), to remind them of it after they move.
I decided to work with the photographs that they had shared with me, bringing in their memories to create a memory based canvas collage. My overall aim was to create a narrative around the photographic material and a visual memory tool which they would enjoy and appreciate in their home now and in the future.
Having an arts, museum and oral history background, I have worked on many memory based projects and exhibitions exploring personal histories, narratives and heritage. I am used to telling stories through objects and images and curating content for exhibitions. Selecting material for this art piece was a similar process, in that it was about making sometimes difficult, but reasoned choices about what content to use in the collage; and trying to ensure that the images could speak to, or represent, the main parts of Carol and Suzy's story, depicting their lives together.
I made several versions of the image. It was challenging to work with someone else's story and memories especially when you know them personally! However once it was completed I realised that I had made the right selection and the picture told the story that I had wanted to convey.
After I had made the art piece, I was nervous about what Carol and Suzy's reaction to it would be. But I needn't have worried! As soon as I presented it to them, I saw that they really thrilled with it!
Carol told me what the art piece meant to her.
"We absolutely love it!!! Whoever sees it love it too, it's a real talking point. It wouldn't be up in the sitting room if we didn't like it. I sit over there and look at it regularly, I love the way the pictures are joined with our parents. When I look at it, it brings back memories and I think about how we have changed."
I asked them for their thoughts about the Remembering Together sessions. The sisters agreed in unison: "We didn't know what to expect but we thoroughly enjoyed it! And we were very sad about not going again. They were lovely people, a really nice group of people!"
And Carol added, "I was worried about how dementia would affect me. Seeing other people at the sessions, living well and coping, was reassuring and made me see the positive side."
I hope the sisters continue to remain positive and remain together as they have been throughout their lives, supporting each other and enjoying their shared memories together.
- Sarah Gudgin, artist and writer
6. It's not the same as forgetting
with Rukiya and Mahomed
Mahomed and Rukiya are relative newcomers to London, moving here seven years ago, although Mahomed studied here when he was younger in 1988. When the couple remember their former life as doctors in Malawi, we are transported to another time and place, where their medical practice was at the heart of a tight knit community in Blantyre, where they lived.
During my visit to their home, I spend time asking them about the Remembering Together programme and their response to the personal art work piece which was created especially for them. Mahomed and Rukiya are people persons, so perhaps it was the need to connect with others that led them to attend the twelve week reminiscence sessions for people with dementia and their carers?
"At first we had mixed feelings and were not keen to go." Rukiya tells me. "Then we went and got hooked! It was lively and we enjoyed it thoroughly. The group was so friendly and care oozed out of everybody. We loved the positive energy and we really looked forward to Thursdays, it was very addictive."
Mahomed joins in, "We enjoyed meeting other people, enjoyed meeting new people! Going to the group made us realise that we are not the only ones like this!"
Rukiya is unusually candid about her diagnosis of early onset dementia. By talking about it openly she hopes to raise awareness of the condition and to tackle some of the stigma surrounding it, particularly within the Asian community. Listening to Rukiya talk about her condition I am full of admiration for her courage and dignity. It's hard to image the effect that the diagnosis must have had on her and I am keen to understand more about the impact.
"After my dementia diagnosis, I was very down. I could accept cancer, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, then, I had intact mental faculties but now I feel that I am not in control. I could not accept dementia. I could not accept memory loss, becoming a burden to others. It was my lowest phase. But over the twelve weeks, the Remembering Together sessions lifted me up!"
These weekly sessions meant a great deal to the couple, giving them support, focus and meaning during a very challenging time in their life. Each week, the group of ten couples shared memories and stories on different topics, whilst the apprentices worked closely with the couples to create activities which were stimulating and fun. I'm keen to hear what this couple made of the activities. Mahomed thinks for a while and says, "We really enjoyed them all, however, the wedding session was one of my favorite sessions. But we also liked the baking week. It was good for our confidence, we felt cared about and we made connections."
Rukiya also speaks enthusiastically about the sessions and how she always looked forward to going, "I remember the twelve weeks and I wish the twelve weeks would last forever. The twelve weeks were like the cake and the artwork is like the cherry on the cake!"
We spend time unpacking and looking through the personalised art work piece which was made for the couple by Hilary Thomson, a drama in education specialist. It's a memory basket which is full of photos from each of the Remembering Together sessions as well as activities that can be repeated at home. Inside are also sensory items to stimulate memories such as smells, tastes and hand written tags with quotes from the Remembering Together sessions. In addition there are crafts and memory games, a notebook with their life story in it and a scrap book to carry on the story by adding new things.
I spoke to Hilary about her inspiration for the piece. "I had noticed that Rukiya liked to do craft with her hands and felt that a basket with crafts and things to occupy her would be useful. I also wanted to keep the essence of Remembering Together going for them as they had loved the sessions so much. I started off with a few ideas and then gradually built it up adding more things as I thought of them. I hoped that the basket would become more individual to them and their story and could be added to over time."
Seeing the memory basket at their home, I also wanted to know what it meant to Rukiya and Mahomed to receive the art work piece from Hilary. Rukiya smiles when she tells me, "I felt like I was getting a degree! I was not expecting it and it was a very good feeling. We cherish it! Hilary put a lot of effort into the piece which showed she cared. There were new crafts and activities inside which were wonderful and challenge the mind. It made me feel connected, because all of the memories that Hilary put together. It made me feel love that I am important to all the people that I am connected with!"
Rukiya takes things out of her memory basket and I enquire about the pictures in their memory book. She tells me about the people in the photos and remembers stories connected to them. From time to time, she struggles to remember a name or a date. Sensing her distress, I try to reassure her that we all forget! In her usual forthright manner she puts me right.
"It's not the same as forgetting!" Rukiya tells me, "People tell me it's ok, we all forget, but they do not understand what I am going through. It hurts me when they say this because it shows they don't take what is happening to me seriously."
We discuss this further and they both understand that I am well-meaning, but Mahomed in turn nods with sudden seriousness. "I feel it is very disrespectful to people with dementia. People seem to think that forgetting equals dementia - that is upsetting. We all forget where we left our keys or forget names occasionally. But when someone has been an expert cook and pastry maker for over three decades and then begins to forget, that is not funny! This illness is taking away Rukiya's memory."
We talk about how hard it is for outsiders to appreciate the impact of dementia in a person's life and the need to raise awareness and perceptions. Speaking to Mahomed and Rukiya, I am struck by their humility but also their honestly and determination to make a difference and I feel a deepening sense of my own understanding of what dementia means.
Turning our attention back to the memory basket, Rukiya shows me a picture of herself wearing a sari. She's standing shoulder to shoulder with Mahomed and their young children are next to them. She's thinking about the past, but she's also thinking of another time when she says to me, "Looking at this might also help to remind us in the future when the dementia progresses, in that it may also help with reconnections and so the dementia may progress more slowly because new connections in the brain can help."
It is also my hope that the memory basket will prompt Rukiya's memory, but also that she may continue to feel loved and important to all the people that she is connected with in the future.
- Sarah Gudgin
5. Recollecting, memories and a mandala
with Danny and Liliane
Danny and Liliane live in a quiet road close to Portobello Road market in a wonderfully eclectic and unconventional home that they have created during a half century of marriage. Their place reflects Danny's artistic creativity and curiosity with the unusual, coupled with Liliane's natural homemaking and love of good food. Walking into their house is to be dazed by a wild assortment of lovely things which adorn every wall and surface, making the house feel loved, cosy and welcoming.
We all sit around the large farmhouse kitchen table, surrounded by old advertising mirrors reflecting teapots, vases, spices, pots and pans to talk about the Remembering Together sessions which the couple attended for twelve weeks. For Liliane and Danny it was a chance to socialise and mix with other couples in a similar situation to them, coping with and facing dementia and memory loss.
"Yes it was togetherness and good to be with friendly people. We were all in the same boat, getting older and more decrepit! It was also mind opening, meaning you were not alone! They were very nice people and at the end of the sessions you felt uplifted and good. And Danny was usually in a good mood too!" Liliane explained.
Liliane has found a menu from The Brush and Palette to show me. It's where her and Danny's story began. The Brush and Palette was a well-known London restaurant, whose clientele included artists and politicians. At the time that they first met, Liliane was learning English in the daytime and working as a waitress in the restaurant in the evening. Whilst Danny was an aspiring artist, making a living from drawing the girls who came in. We read the old menu and marvel at how the food and the prices have changed.
After we have finished our tea, I ask if it is possible to see their personal art piece which was created for them by Louisa White. It occupies a special corner in their bedroom, which is in itself a haven of books, pictures, curiosities and memorabilia, and Danny's desk, which is cluttered with interesting objects and painted bright canary yellow.
As Danny gets the mandala collage down from the wall, I ask him what he thinks of it. He ponders it awhile and replies. "She didn't miss anything at all, there's even a detail from the place where I was evacuated," he tells me.
"It is totally brilliant and everything on it is correct, just right, spot-on!" Liliane joins in.
I ask them why they have put it in their bedroom and Liliane explains:
"It brings back a lot of memories. We are 54 years married and it is good that it reminds us of our good times, all of our lives, the ups and downs. Our travels, our enjoyments. We put it in our bedroom so that when we wake up we can open our eyes and see it!"
I wondered how Louisa, who trained in dance and psychology, but now works using movement with elders and people with dementia, came up with her idea for the mandala and how long it took to make.
"I had to create something I knew I could work with and would interest me.... As I got to know Danny I felt he would share the appreciation of my chosen form.
''I thought about it for months, then spent a day sourcing pictures and two further days printing, cutting and pasting… over all it took about 30 hours," she told me.
Meeting the couple in their own home, surrounded by the things that they love, the paintings and the objects that reflect their lives together, accumulated through their travels and collecting over the years, I can see just how Louisa arrived at her memory mandala art piece. It reflects both their lives and their interests as well as being a beautiful and lasting source of memory, even when a time comes when one of them may not remember quite as well.
- Sarah Gudgin
4. A place for life stories and remembering
with David and Vanessa
When I first met David and Vanessa at the Remembering Together reminiscence sessions and apprenticeship course run by Westminster Arts, I was struck by their open, gentle and friendly manner. So it is no surprise that I am warmly welcomed with broad smiles and natural cheerfulness into their lovely house, which is on a neat street near Ladbroke Grove. Vanessa asks about my journey and my family, as she puts the kettle on to make tea in their sunny kitchen.
I'm visiting today to ask some questions about their experience of the Remembering Together sessions and to take some photos of the personalised artwork which was made for them by one of the apprentices on the course. However I can already tell that we are going to have a good old natter as well! As with all my other visits, it is a delight to spend time at home together and my natural curiosity soon gets the better of me, as I find myself asking about certain things that catch my eye around their place. Vanessa and David are delighted to be asked and seem to enjoy sharing their precious memories with me.
Its something we've got used to doing together over the twelve weeks that I've got to know the couple, except now in their own home, there's more time to talk and so much I want to ask!
When we are settled with our tea, I ask them to tell me about what they thought of the Remembering Together sessions and what taking part had meant to them.
"It was a relaxing time with no burdens" says Vanessa, "It was very good to meet other people and to hear other carers talking about what they were finding hard, or easy ways to do things. You were able to say what you liked. The sessions were very enjoyable and it was nice to meet people together in a similar situation. The sessions made us feel more positive and we enjoyed going over our stories. I sometimes couldn't tell who had dementia and who didn't!"
Sadly David's own memory loss means that he can no longer recall very much about the sessions without Vanessa's gentle prompting. We look at the Storycomb art piece together which was made for the couple by Charlotte Overton-Hart. Amongst the hexagonal picture cards, each with an individual photograph on it from their lives, are some from the Remembering Together sessions. We select a few of these and lay them out in front of David on the kitchen table.
"Here's you and Vanessa getting married again on the week when we did wedding role play" I say. "And this one looks like that time where you were remembering your work as solicitor, during a role play about a courtroom story."
Slowly, shyly, David seems to remember. He picks another card up and scrutinizes the image, "I appear to be cooking in this one!" He says with delight.
I ask about them to tell me about the Storycomb artwork and how they use it. Vanessa explains. "It brings back so many memories of the things that happened long ago. It covers the whole of our lives and it's easy to look at and to find things because they are together in one place and not scattered around the house. Now I don't have to find them every time I want to look at them. The pictures that are enlarged show more detail than the originals and that helps David to see them and remember them with me!"
When I spoke to Charlotte the maker of the Storycomb, I wanted to understand from her how she went about making the artwork.
"I spent a couple of days with David and Vanessa in their home. We rummaged through piles of photos together and I took some photos of David and Vanessa pottering at home: Vanessa making tea in a wonderful silver teapot, and David puffing on his pipe and reading a spot of Rudyard Kipling. We walked around the house and garden together and David and Vanessa pointed out items which might be of interest.
There is a very rich history on both sides of the family, so walking round was a real treat with plenty to explore. Vanessa found the hat she wore for her going away outfit on their wedding day, but we weren't able to find the bowler hat David wore to work. I was able to use photos from Remembering Together sessions, mixing in new memories with old, and David and Vanessa's three sons - Tim, Ed and Will - also very kindly sent across some photos by email. Once I had gathered the photos together I cut them into hexagons and laminated them. Finally I varnished a hexagonal wooden box for the Storycomb to live in."
I also wondered how Charlotte went about working with someone else's memories and what it was like representing this couple's life story? Charlotte explains:
"I wanted to give value to every chapter of David and Vanessa's life, without placing more value on any one chapter over another. I hoped that the Storycomb would give value to all life stages.
Making the Storycomb confirmed to me that working with people must be on their terms, and based on what matters to them, rather than imposing a set of categories. Without their story, there wouldn't be a Storycomb."
Charlotte plans to stay in touch with David and Vanessa, through the Creative Befrienders programme run by Westminster Arts. Among other creative activities, she is hoping to add more hexagons to the Storycomb as they spend more time together and make new memories.
As for Vanessa and David, it was time for me to beon my way home. As I am leaving though, Vanessa tells me that having the chance to look back over their lives during the twelve weeks has made them think about their life together and this has made them feel that they have led interesting and fulfilling lives. She adds that the sessions have also made her think about writing up her stories for their children and grandchildren. I do hope she does!
3. The gift that keeps on giving
with Mercia and Sophia
I'm visiting my first care home for this project in Lewisham and I am wondering what I will find there. I'm here to see Mercia, to talk to her about the Remembering Together sessions and her personalised art work which was made for her by author and personal biographer Sarah Lott. It's a book called All About Me.
First impressions of the care home are good, staff are polite and friendly and the corridors are clean and pleasant, it's got the feel of a hotel about it. Sophie greets me at the communal front door and fills me in on what's been going on with her mum Mercia, since we last met. We walk and talk at the same time, passing several open doors where I can see elderly residents lying down, watching TV or just reading the paper, whilst in another room someone is having their hair done by one of the care staff.
Sophie explains that Mercia wasn't really managing in her flat on her own, she'd stopped going out as much to the local shops, she was losing her confidence and even her independence. It was a difficult decision for the family to move her into a care home and listening to Sophie, it sounds as if the past couple of months have been very challenging. But Mercia is happily settled now and being well cared for by staff, which is a relief to all. In addition, the home is closer to all the family, so potentially it's easier to see her mum on a more regular basis, rather than at her old flat which was in central London.
When I enter Mercia's room, she's sitting in her chair and she breaks into a lovely welcoming smile when she sees me. She is looking very well, in fact better than when I last saw her, which I tell her. Her room is simple but there are lots of personal touches, family photos, her furniture from the flat and her own bits and bobs.
It's tricky for Mercia to recall the Remembering Together sessions and I wish I had brought some photos along to remind her. It's not obvious, but I can tell there has been a change since the last time we met. Sophie helps out with prompts to my questions, but we are both trying not to say, 'do you remember' too much, as we don't want to stress Mercia with an insensitive line of questions. Instead we chat about the sessions and Mercia joins in when she can.
I recall that Mercia was animated and lively during the Remembering Together sessions joining in whenever possible, so I'm interested to hear what they made of the reminiscence group. Sophie tells me, "It was a happy time, when Mum laughed and smiled a lot. At first we didn't know what to expect, but we were greeted like old friends every week and that really made a difference to Mum. You begin to see people you know and then you look forward to seeing them again. Positive stuff came out each week and I even heard new stories which I hadn't heard before!"
I can see that Mercia is reading her personal memory book and I ask if she could tell me what she thinks of it: "I love the book and I keep looking at it. I can't believe I did all these things, it seems like another world to me!" She smiles. "It's another world. I seem to have gone to so many places and I look at my younger self and I can't quite believe it!"
Sophie joins in, "The book is a constant source of interest and brings back a lot of memories each time she looks at it, she enjoys it again and again and again!!!"
I thought it would be interesting to ask Sarah Lott to describe how she produced the memory book for Mercia and whether the family were involved. "I used memories and photos that we'd gathered during the sessions and wrote a simple and fun questionnaire for Sophie to complete and share with her mother. I then wrote the book as a narrative, edited the photos and designed the pages and a hardback cover using publishing software and I called it All About Me because it's a Life Story book. The book is full of photos of Mercia and her family, together with memories and personal facts and stories which celebrate her life."
I am keen to understand from Sarah, what she would say were the particular challenges of making an artwork or this book using someone else's memories? "My main priority was to capture Mercia's wonderful personality and create something that she would enjoy reading and be proud of," Sarah tells me, "I also wanted something that the family would appreciate and that could be used by carers, as a source of reference and as a reminiscence tool with Mercia".
Seeing Mercia so happily engrossed in her personal life story book, I can really see how this book works on many levels. As a constant source of interest, acting as a memory prompt for Mercia, as a reference tool and conversation aid for family and friends who are part of Mercia's personal history, and also for the carers to come to know and understand Mercia as a unique individual, even after Mercia has ceased to remember herself.
My thoughts are summed up by Sophie when she tells me, "The book completely occupies Mum and every time she looks at it, she is seeing it afresh as if it was the first time. It's the gift that keeps on giving and I am so glad we did it whilst we could!"
- Sarah Gudgin
For more information about Sarah's work email firstname.lastname@example.org
2. Sweet Memories, fly me to the moon
with Helena and Jenneba
"I'm in the prescience of an artist!" I declare, turning around in Helena's front room to admire the wonderful paintings that adorn the walls. "I never knew you were an artist as well as a singer," I say to Helena.
"Mum enjoys doing her art," calls Jenneba who's making tea in the kitchen. I join her to look at some of Helena's pictures on the kitchen cupboards. Helena appears at my shoulder to see what I'm looking at. "Oh I haven't looked at them, I mean really looked at them in ages," she says. "I think someone must have brought in a fish, don't you?"
In the kitchen there's some handwriting on the wall and I try to read it. Jenneba explains that Mum likes to leave messages to herself, as it helps her to remember, when she seems to be forgetting some things these days.
I ask Helena about the Remembering Together sessions and whether I can see her personal art work made for her by Iris Musel, a 'Musical Memories' box and a 'Sweet Memories' box both decorated in personal photographs and each containing something special.
As Helena opens up one of the boxes to show me, her eyes glitter with excitement and she's smiling. Lifting the lid, the musical box tinkles with a familiar tune and inside there are laminated song sheets from the old days, from musicals such as Singing in the Rain and The Wizard of Oz. Helena picks one out and immediately breaks into song. It's not the first time I have heard her sing, she regularly serenaded us all at the Remembering Together sessions where she was a lively participant.
It's an audience with Helena I think, as I sit back and enjoy listening to her sing. The thing is, it's so infectious and soon Jenneba and I are both joining in with her and I realise that I'm not going to get very far asking my questions. So I abandon my plans, to simply be present in the moment, going with the flow and the rhythm of Helena's musical mood. Now it's not just our voices that are in harmony, but we are too and time doesn't matter, as we spend the rest of the afternoon singing together from the songs in the Musical Memory box. After all, I can see with my own eyes and hear for myself how perfect this art piece is for Helena!
In order to understand more about how Iris about came up with the idea for Helena's personal art piece, we meet in a café in Bethnal Green for a chat.
"The 'Musical Memories' box was inspired by the fact the Helena loves singing!" Iris tells me. "We enjoyed singing many songs during the sessions. I decorated the box with coloured imaged of Helena and her family and inside are song sheets from songs that I believed Helena would enjoy singing. It's also a reminder on how fun and playful both Helena and Jenne are."
The box also has a wind up mechanism I observed. Was there a particular reason for choosing this I ask Iris.
"The reason I chose 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' for the mechanical movement, is that Jenne played Dorothy in a school play when she was little, so I knew the song meant a lot to both of them."
Next we talk about the "The 'Sweet Memories' box which is decorated with black and white pictures of Helena and her family. Around the rim it says 'Sweet Memories' and inside the box are sweets, each wrapped with a piece of paper around it with a written memory on it. How did Iris bring this original idea together?
"For me, it was helpful to capture everything that I had learned about Helena and Jenne over the twelve weeks together. So I collected the stories and memories that they had shared with me during the Remembering Together sessions, as a reminder and to put inside the box." Iris tells me.
But what happens when all the sweets have been eaten? I ask.
"The idea behind the Sweet Memoires box was to make something that could be carried on, to create something that Helena's family could add more memories to, just by making sure that the box is always filled with sweet memories. I have spoken to Jenne since and I know that she keeps on replenishing the box." Iris says.
I'm keen to see how Iris found making an artwork using someone else's memories? She thinks it over for a while before telling me.
"When I was writing the memories to wrap around the sweets, I wished that I could have added more. Otherwise it was an absolute pleasure recounting the memories whilst creating the artwork. It felt extremely special and rewarding and it has inspired me to use the idea and integrate it into art workshops for people with dementia."
Back at Helena's place we're ready for a sweet memory as Helena rustles through the sweets, picks one and unwraps it like a fortune cookie! It's a memory about a tall nun and a short nun who both taught at Helena's school in Ireland. It seems to bring a flood of memories and we suck our sweets and talk about the past.
I've so enjoyed my special time singing and sharing memories with Helena and Jenneba. Before I go, I manage to ask Helena to tell me what her memory boxes means to her.
"It's wonderful!" She smiles, "It's full of pictures and memories and every one of them has a significance for me. It makes me happy and I forget I'm an old lady!"
In fact I find that as I leave the flat, I'm also feeling very happy too and as I walk down the road in the rain I'm still humming 'Fly me to the Moon.'
- Sarah Gudgin
1. A Room with a view
A visit to Pina and Abele's flat
There are 58 steep stairs winding their way up to the fifth floor flat where Pina and Abele live in Pimlico.
When I arrive breathless at the top, my legs aching from the climb, I am greeted with understanding and warm smiles from Pina and Abele and led into a bright sunlit front room.
"Those stairs are terrible," I complain. "How do you manage to carry your shopping up all these flights?"
"Yes they are too hard," says Pina. "That's why I don't go out much anymore. I can't do the stairs down then up. I leave all the shopping to Abele, he goes out every morning."
Pina flops down on the sofa whilst Abele makes Italian coffee and Pina tells me about her health and how Abele is doing since his dementia diagnosis.
I look about the room and admire the mantelpiece which is a monument to both their lives.
On the left, above the framed word
Grandad made up of small family photos, is a picture of Abele as a handsome young man. Over on the right, the word Grandma mirrors his and there's a photo of Pina as a young woman complementing the one of Abele. They are both surrounded by a collection of photographs of children and grandchildren. In the heart of the mantelpiece, an
Italia calendar unites both sides and along the cluttered mantelpiece itself, an assortment of ornaments and knickknacks collected over the years, or brought back by grandchildren from each of the places they have visited.
Over coffee, we discuss the Remembering Together arts and reminiscence project which they both attended through Westminster Arts' Resonate programme. I ask Abele to show me the special art piece which was created for the couple by Claire.
"It's a window looking out over Salerno where I grew up," he tells me proudly. "This is where my village was," he points. "And here is the beach. Many people go there, many tourists come from all over. Just a minute, let me show you the light."
Abele reaches back for a cleverly hidden switch and suddenly the picture lights up as if the sun has come out and Abele is beaming too. "Look, it is nice yes?"
I ask Abele what the light box means to him.
"Claire, she made it for me. It is where I come from. It is a very nice place. It is nice to remember."
This remarkable art piece was the creation of Claire Francis, who whilst not describing herself as a 'practicing artist', is clearly a very creative and inventive person. I wanted to find out more about her way of working.
"I've a keen interest in collecting and displaying vintage and other unusual paraphernalia," she tells me when we meet up. "And on a more personal level, I was interested in combining my interest in all things vintage in reminiscence work."
Claire went on to explain what inspired her to make the Salerno window. "The art work piece is a 3D interpretation of the memories that Abele and Pina shared with apprentices in the very first session that they attended on the Remembering Together sessions."
Since English is not the first language of Pina and Abele, I wanted to understand whether there were any particular challenges whilst working with the couple. Claire fills me in.
"Using drawings to record what Pina and Abele were saying helped them to express themselves when they couldn't find the words they were looking for in English."
Claire tells me that during a session, they described the little town from where they both originated – Salerno near Naples.
"They said it was a beautiful town, close to the Amalfi Coast, and seemed to enjoy the interest shown by the group. The drawings that were created illustrated olive harvests, vegetable growing, a grapevine harvest, wine, coffee and more. I found out that Abele and Pina have an apartment in Salerno and Abele in particular enjoys looking out of the balcony window at the people passing by".
The 'view from a window' of her artwork design concept then was obviously inspired by Abele's own description of the things he enjoyed doing when he visited Salerno?
"That's right," Claire tells me. "My understanding of the significance of this pastime was also reinforced further by Pina, who told me that Abele would not relocate to Basingstoke to be near their son, even though they live in a flat on the fifth floor without a lift and Abele has to carry the shopping up many flights of stairs. He liked his home and he particularly liked the view from their flat on the fifth floor!"
I ask Claire to describe how she went about creating her art piece for them.
"From the outset, I was mindful that the artwork was not about me having fun or simply creating something pretty or impressive – but that it should be a true and sensitive reflection of some of the memories shared by Pina and Abele. I used the drawings as my main source of inspiration, as a reference to ensure my creation was based on their memories and would offer personal relevance and significance. From the very beginning, I focussed on their Italian origins, which appeared to be a source of vivid, lucid and special memories. I was also conscious that as they got older or perhaps if they were forced to relocate, the piece would focus on sunny Salerno and might provide welcome sunshine and comfort on darker days."
How useful did you find the visual reference material for your piece?
"By using the drawings as reference, together with my own observations and conversations with the couple, I felt confident that the end product would be relevant as well as a welcome reminder of their sunny origins."
I couldn't agree more! The art work is a perfect reminder of their Italian homeland away from London and of happier times when life was a little easier for them.
As say my farewells and leave Pina and Abele's flat, I find that when I am outside in the street, something compels me to turn once more and look back at the house where they live, and there by the window, is Abele, leaning out and waving me goodbye!
- Sarah Gudgin