Peggy and Betty
We were in a care home where the manager was open to the idea of us running some life story sessions with a small group of residents who all had advanced dementia. We went on a profound journey with this group, sometimes bewildering, sometimes hilarious. We laughed a lot, we held hands a lot. We gave people permission to tell fragments of stories or stories that didn’t make sense, that weren’t “true”, to sit silently and enjoy being connected for an hour.
There was a wonderful member of staff called Karen who was with us for the whole time and loved what we were doing and how the residents were responding. On the second day she brought a notepad in and from then on she was writing and recording all through the sessions. Whereas in the beginning it seemed like none of the residents had any personal photographs or objects, by week 2 Karen was bringing things out of storage - beautiful photographs in frames, mirrors, trophies that had been won, wonderful clues into the lives and personalities of the members of our group.
We used music a lot, both singing and recorded music. One day we had played a selection of music and most people were clearly enjoying it and connecting, apart from one woman Peggy with advanced dementia who remained detached and showed no visible connection. We knew from the care staff that Peggy had grown up in the docks, a multicultural area of Cardiff and Karin was operating the laptop and decided to put on a Bob Marley song.
As the rhythm filled the room, Peggy started swaying and tapping her feet, then as the lyrics began she started to sing out loud and smile. Karin invited her into the centre of the circle and Peggy, who we had only seen shuffling a few steps at a time, rose out of her chair and began to move effortlessly and fluidly. They danced together and the years fell away. It was an amazing moment – that magical ability of the brain to retain lyrics after spoken language is gone – and the body’s memory for movement and rhythm. Peggy’s happiness filled the room and infected us all. It was a life changing moment for us as practitioners.
While short term cognitive memories die, research has proven that the emotional memory of an event for people with dementia can last for a long time, so although Peggy probably wouldn’t have remembered that dance we think some of that good feeling that she was clearly experiencing might have stayed with her for many hours after that session.
That release of emotion that can come from life story work also had an impact on the behaviour of Betty, another resident in this group. Betty’s pattern of behaviour was that every afternoon she would go to the front door which was locked and rattle the door, trying to get out. This was distressing for her and the staff who were always trying to distract her and stop her from doing it. During our sessions Betty talked in fragments about her early life, being in a convent school where she was locked in by the nuns. She would often engage for the first half of the session and then drop off to sleep, and was heavily medicated. Quite a long time after we had worked at the home, the manager got in touch with us to give us some feedback. He told us that while Betty was taking part in our sessions in the mornings, she had stopped going to the front door every afternoon and. Karen, the care assistant who had worked with us, had kept some sessions going which Betty continued to attend and in fact hadn’t done so since. As a result of being calmer and less distressed, Betty had been taken off her anti-psychotic medication. Less falls, less falling asleep, less drugs, more living.
“To be given the chance to express how I felt about certain episodes of my life was both cathartic and empowering.”
Before we met Terri in 2006 she had been struggling with depression and agoraphobia for many years. She described her life since her children had left home as “marking time”, the occasional visit to a garden centre, a series of craft activities which in Terri’s words “I was crap at and didn’t even enjoy”. She was living in the Midlands feeling disconnected, lonely, scared of the world. She and her husband made the decision to move back to Terri’s home city of Cardiff. One day she dragged herself to a meeting with us at Re-Live to find out about a life story project at Chapter.
Terri remembers this meeting being terrifying and exciting. All her life she had written – letters, diaries, stories and she had secretly dreamed of one day performing. But Terri’s life experience had quashed her self-belief and she had grown up with a sense of shame which had stopped her from fulfilling her potential. Her childhood in Grangetown contained both poverty and brutality. Her father could be violent and her mother’s fragile mental health meant long stays in Whitchurch Hospital and a cold, loveless house for Terri and her brothers. When Terri met her husband in 1961 she left Cardiff as quick as she could, but found she couldn’t leave the memories behind. She says about this:
“When I got married at 19 I was always wanting to tell my husband about it all but he used to say “Ah Terri you live in the past too much, forget it, forget it, you gotta forget it”…so it was always sitting there and I always felt I needed to explain to people why I was like I was, but there was never the opportunity.”
Terri is a natural, compelling performer. She has worked on three theatre projects with us over the last 6 years and her journey has been humbling and inspiring to observe. Slowly, through group sessions and exercises which gave her that opportunity to reflect on and review her life, and then through performing her life stories, Terri has transformed. Looking back on her journey over the last six years she says:
“You helped me turn baggage into a powerful tool, cos suddenly I thought well, if I’d been brought up better I wouldn’t have had this material. And I forgot about all the slights and the insults and I was just looking for the punchline in what my father had said. You showed me how to use that…Performing my story changed how I looked at myself. I no longer saw myself as a victim.”
Terri has performed across Wales, she got on a plane for the first time in 40 years to fly to Cork to perform at an international festival …She says that the transformation has changed her relationship with her husband and also brought her closer to her sons. Terri had never felt able to tell her sons about her own childhood but she could tell them onstage in a theatre. Terri had ironically been told repeatedly throughout her life “Don’t be dramatic” but being dramatic was ultimately what freed her from the pain of her past. For much of her adult life Terri had struggled with insecurity and mental ill health, and yet there she was, holding a stage, making an audience laugh and cry.
“I can’t explain it” Terri says,
“ I felt safe, I felt safe up there. I don’t know if it was the darkness, the intimacy. I was able to share with the audience that I never went to my mum’s funeral. I was able to say sorry, to say to my mother I do love you, I might not like you but I love you. I could not have achieved that through hypnotherapy, or counselling. It had to be there. It had to become bigger than me. It had to be dramatic. It’s definitely healing, yes it’s lovely to have the applause, that’s wonderful but the healing…it’s the healing.”