Here we are again
Happy as can be
All good pals and jolly good company.
So sings everybody as we gather around our flower-laden table in The Dukes Centre for Creative Learning each Thursday lunchtime following hugs, greetings and copious cups of tea.
We are indeed here again and everyone is happy as can be. We are gathered as husbands, wives, parents, children, carers, friends and artists. A teddy bear also sits at the table.
As we catch up over conversations since we saw each other last, the mood is light, convivial, and fizzing with the joyous anticipation of what collaborative creations will unfold today. Some of us do not remember what we created in this space last week. One member of the group pipes up: ‘If you can’t remember, forget it!’
Still Me is a participative multi-arts group for people living with dementia. It is one strand of a broader project called A Life More Ordinary(ALMO), which is just entering its third year at The Dukes theatre in Lancaster.
ALMO aims to offer greater choice and accessibility to the creative arts for people living with dementia: not only those diagnosed with the condition but also their friends, carers and families.
I am involved with Still Me as a film and theatre practitioner, in collaboration with three other artists: a musician, a visual artist and a movement facilitator. From the outset, we collectively envisioned a project that avoided being about ‘us’ (the artists) and ‘them’ (the participants).
Although to a certain extent we craft how the sessions are structured and delivered, we intend each week to offer an experience that is co-created by the rich alchemy of people in the room. Each session is planned in response to stories, experiences or moments gifted by members of the group. Themes often emerge from topics of conversation such as our homes, our passions and our circles of people.
The idea of journeying together in response to the sense of isolation and loss that people living with dementia often experience, has been a strong guiding principle throughout ALMO. It is certainly central to how Still Me has developed.
Even though some of us may not remember what activities we did last week, those in the group with dementia are usually able to glow with a strong sense of emotional familiarity with simply being in the room and sharing lunch together.
One woman is often smiling and laughing even as she crosses the road upon arrival. The sight of her sparkling eyes as she dances through the doors into the space lifts all of our spirits week-in, week-out.
Still Me aims to be truly person-centred in its approach to engaging with people living with dementia. For some members of the group, as their sense of the past disintegrates and they struggle to envision their future, the present moment is their whole world. Quite often, elements of spontaneous improvisation conjure glorious material within the sessions.
A strong sense of the importance of creative play has always been at the heart of the project. Together, we have explored ideas and themes through movement, shadow puppetry, model-making, animation, physical improvisation and music.
As creative practitioners, it can often be so easy to focus on the final product in which the process is merely a means to an end. We are decades younger than older members of the group and with far less life experience. With Still Me, the value of complete immersion in the present moment serves as a constant reminder of the richness of intergenerational and process-driven arts practice.
Collectively, we have a loose sense of how a shared ‘product’ of Still Me might be shaped. Our most natural inclination as a group is to offer an invitation to others into the participative experience of our world, in all of its surrealism, conviviality and joy. Undoubtedly, the ongoing sessions will inform the collaborative creation of that world as we journey together as people.
We all know that participating in arts activity isn’t and would never claim to be a cure for dementia. However, hopefully what Still Me and A Life More Ordinary offer is an invitation to live well with dementia and share our life experiences with each other through creativity.
It offers an opportunity for all involved to laugh, create and enjoy the vitality of all that matters: in the now.