Where I work, the Community Development department hosts ‘café reminiscence sessions’ for local residents who have dementia. This is a disease common in over-65s and caused by a loss of brain tissue, which sees a decline in mental functioning demonstrated in the form of symptoms such as short-term memory loss, impaired judgement and personality changes. As the ability of people with dementia to function mentally and carry out everyday tasks becomes more difficult, their social life can suffer as a result. The aim of these sessions was to boost the social activity of people with dementia by having volunteers engage in conversation with them about sport in order to help stimulate their long-term memories.
I decided to sign up to participate in the sessions, mainly because I could relate to the disease given that my grandmother had had it. At first it had caused little sporadic mistakes like her muddling up names or forgetting to sign a card, then as the disease progressed she would randomly get a bus into town and we’d get a call from a café owner telling us she had walked through the door looking confused. The condition would become a source of danger when it came to tasks such as cooking or driving. Shortly before her death, she thought my father (her son) was her husband.
My reaction would at first be one of amusement as I walked in to my grandma’s little bungalow and saw that she had drawn two eyebrows on top of each other. It was easy to underestimate how serious the condition was, because as is the case with dementia, her long-term memory was still good. For example, she never lost her knack for card games – a skill that had become so embedded in her brain However, as my grandma’s health deteriorated I found myself becoming more nervous around her. It became upsetting when I saw a new side to her in which she became angry after being corrected about an error. It also upset me because I could see the effect it had on my father as he gradually became less and less familiar to the woman who had raised him.
These reminiscence sessions at work were aimed to revolve around sporting memories. Whilst I love sport and knew that the participants would only be in the early stages of dementia, before my session I was a little nervous. I hadn’t made any plan of the questions I would ask. What if the participants didn’t want to talk to me? What if we had an awkward silence? What if my questioning caused them stress?
I walked in and was first introduced to Otis*, who had just turned 95. When I asked how long he’d lived in the area for, he said a few years. “No Otis,” said his carer with a laugh. “It’s been at least 30 years.” Otis frowned at her in disbelief and exclaimed “Has it?” The carer winked at me, obviously used to these mistakes. Otis soon recovered from his error to tell us with a cheeky smile about how he only went to school to play rugby and see girls.
Penelope was an Irish lady who looked around the room in confusion, her brow wrinkling apprehensively as I began speaking to her. Then upon hearing my name, she perked up and said “That’s an Irish name!” and before I had a chance to tell her that I’m not actually from Ireland, she proceeded to tell me where she grew up, assuming that I knew exactly where she was talking about.
Jim was an American who immediately handed me his card when I asked for his name. I could tell that he was well-practised in the way he casually but smoothly produced it from his well-stocked pocket. He clearly still had a lot of self-pride about his past work as an ambassador; dementia hadn’t reduced his social confidence. He talked to the lady next to him about the British colonies in Africa with a striking sharpness of knowledge. At the same time, one almost sensed that he still believed the world was in an age of imperialism.
Camila, a Colombian lady, shifted over and patted the other half of her seat for me to sit down on. She told me how she had immigrated to England in 1974 to work as an au pair, with no knowledge of English. The man she worked for had taught her, then she moved house when he no longer required her help and she didn’t see him again until one day, she bumped into him on the street and they gave each other a huge hug. As she spoke with a mixture of fondness and wistfulness, she placed her arm comfortably around my waist, as if I was her child.
I was amazed at how much these locals could remember, and how a memory might be sourced. Even the tiniest, most seemingly insignificant topic might ignite a spark. The person’s eyes would light up as they recalled an event still planted fresh in their flowerbed of memories. There is a gate that lets one access this garden. On some days it might be difficult to open, but on others, all you need is a little patient probing to enter a world of colour.
Speaking and listening to these people was truly inspirational and uplifting. It proved that there is still life after dementia has been diagnosed. Having the condition isn’t a reason to stop talking and wither away into a state of loneliness. It’s a reason to celebrate one’s life by talking about it. Dementia also isn’t something to be afraid of from the perspective of those who know someone with the disease. It doesn’t mean we have ‘lost’ these people and should hence ‘give up’ on them. Without even having to do too much, we can make a huge difference to the lives of people with the disease. Simply by listening, we can alleviate some of the loneliness and insecurity they may feel and through the encouragement of sharing stories, prolong someone’s youth.
If anyone reading this knows of someone with dementia, I would encourage you to give up some of your time to chat with this person. You will brighten up someone’s day and make a memory go a longer way.