Study visit? So what did you learn?

I’ve been asked that question a few times on my travels and at home, I’m still trying to formulate a short punchy reply other than ‘LOADS’.

From the older people, I learnt more of what we already know:- we need not be so afraid to show our emotions and we need to be acknowledged for who we really are, regardless of age or ability. When the woman I met in Victoria listened to the poem that she and local writer had crafted about a walk under the old Garry Oak trees, she clutched her abdomen, saying ‘I feel it here, I feel it here.’ During the Timeslips session, I sat next to a widower who introduced himself with a raw description of his grief but within the hour he was transformed into a laughing, energetic ‘story-teller’ contributing to the group story.

From the professionals I learnt to take risks, let my imagination fly, not to be held back in case something doesn’t work. There are so many new approaches that I can use in my own workshops, I learnt to work more with other art forms- creating an outcome that brings words together with paint, or music, or performance or installation. I learnt some more of the science and the philosophy behind the benefits of creative expression in dementia care that can demonstrate our sense of identity, which is what we all want, including those living with dementia

From the places I visited, I learnt that our environment shapes our view of the world, from the woman who was afraid to walk outside her house for fear of being attacked, to the man who built trails through forests still yearning to be amidst the trees, to the man who loved rocks because they don’t answer back. Everyone I spoke to had some sense of their identity being affected by the places they have strolled or lived or worked or raised a family.

From audience responses I learnt that art produced by older people can bring about social change, can be used to inform research, can make policy makers and service providers  THINK about individuals.  People’s responses to stories, paintings, poetry, plays, music created by older people with dementia is often very profound, giving deep insight into how creativity is a social and psychological need.

'If you want to change the world, look at yourself and make a change.'  Artwork in day centre

‘If you want to change the world, look at yourself and make a change.’
Artwork in day centre

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The Sea, The Sea, The Sea.

Final rest day here on Cape Breton Island, staying in an Alpine looking guesthouse in Port Hood with a view of the sea (blocked slightly by a huge digger). This area has a series of tourist routes; I’m staying on the ‘Ceilidh Trail’, so no surprise that my host was playing the fiddle at breakfast. (really!!) The north of the island has the spectacular Cabut Trail which is where everyone goes – but I decided it was too far, too much highland driving, too much of a rush. So I took a short drive to Inverness and spent a few hours on the beach by the Atlantic (Northumberland Strait) which was so invigorating. It was almost warm enough to swim in one of the small coves, which were totally isolated, but I thought the cold water might bring on a heart attack and no one around to resuscitate me.

The drive back through more miles of forests and watery inlets was really just like a Canadian version of Scotland, not surprisingly, but also a big Irish influence from early settlers.

Main differences are the houses in the villages, quite modern, clad with weatherboarding, mostly without any fences or boundaries so it looks a bit random in comparison with uptight British garden hedges and boundaries. There are a lot of churches, a lot of Right to Life posters, a lot of huge caravan-type trailers that fit on the back of a 4WD, and a lot of motorbikes. (I had lunch in a café with fifteen Harley bikers -average age 68- which was quite an experience.)

Difficult to drive and take photos, so I don’t have any photos which do the scenery justice but I’m still hoping to get a pic of one of the big butch trucks they have here, same as USA, makes the Eddie Stobbart fleet look very timid.

Tomorrow- early start, 3 hour drive to Halifax airport, 2 hour flight to Toronto, 7 hour flight to Heathrow, I hour flight to Newcastle, 45 min drive to HOME….. and a final blog titled

Study Visit? What have you learnt?’  By then I hope to have a coherent answer.

Beach at Inverness

Beach at Inverness

Watery inlet at Mabou

Watery inlet at Mabou

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A final day of talking, learning, listening.

Waking up in Nova Scotia

Waking up in Nova Scotia

Sparkling water outside my window as I woke up this morning, great start to an inspiring day. At the invitation of AHA! (Arts and Health Antigonish) I facilitated a discussion at a lovely residential care facility about using creative writing with people with dementia. After I had rambled for a while, read poems and stories from my previous projects, we had a group discussion. I was impressed to hear about the Eldertree project -developing older people’s stories as the basis for a performance piece.

We had many experiences and challenges in common. Firstly we talked about the actual connection between the writer and the older person/people. To what extent should we edit their words, how do we overcome the stereotypes of dementia, how do we focus on the spirit of the person in the present? How do we handle those difficult ‘truths’ uttered by individuals feeling despair and grief – without creating images that are judged as ‘negative’?

Then we talked about the audiences for the work produced- are we creating art or literature, or are we trying to influence policy, or act as advocates in health networks?

The medical and nursing and care staff that I have worked with have all been caring, thoughtful professionals but the role of creative expression is often see as the ‘fluff’ on top of the real job of caring- yet there is scientific evidence that says the creative arts can be as effective as psychotropic drugs in bringing calm, helping with concentration and communication.

And there was a lot more! I am so grateful to the lovely people who invited me, the facility which hosted today’s discussion and WCMT who let me have a few days research in Nova Scotia.

Finally- one more rest day before I’m back in the UK. So I’ve driven across the causeway to Cape Breton (only one incident with a truck that seemed to have an entire forest on its back and a very selfish attitude to shared space) and I’m beside a different expanse of water at Port Hood. Sooooo good.

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Hitting the road- on the right.

It seems that driving on the right is not so difficult, especially if the car has an automatic gearbox and the road is dual carriageway and hardly any traffic. All I had to do was get onto route 104 which cuts through mile after mile of copper and green  forests as the road heads east, and keep my foot down.

Although it feels much like Scotland or Northumberland, there was not one sheep in sight; seems the road kill is different here too with no suicidal pheasants and only  the occasional squished skunk. Place names are a mix of Scottish (New Glasgow)  English (Truro)  and Stewiacke (Mi’kmaq meaning ‘flowing out in small streams’). Like Northumberland, the coal mining history with all its disasters is remembered along The Miners Memorial Highway.

Finally I reached today’s destination – Antigonish (Gaelic name Am Baile Mor)  where I’ve been invited to stay with writer Anne Simpson  in her waterfront house. So lovely to have a walk by the water (estuary leading to the Atlantic) before going to a residential facility  to meet  local people on their special day of celebrations. There was live country music in the sunshine,  with a bit of dancing,  then inside to see a film about some of the work achieved here at AHA! (Antigonish Health and Arts!) including the Eldertree writing project which gathers stories from elders at the home.   It was such a treat to sit down to dinner  with the residents and get to hear their views and experiences – I heard all about Peter working as an engineer in the forests, building trails for logging.  There is something so important for frail older people  to be able to tell their story and have it heard, recorded,  then shown in print or on  film. It reminds each individual that the contribution they have made to the world is still part of who they are today. Good stories don’t  often hit the headlines, as Peter said, its only bad news which is so bad it keeps you awake at night. Ain’t that the truth.

Stacy and Anne talking about Eldertree  project

Stacy and Anne telling residents about the film.

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‘Life’s currency is the images we keep.’

This morning I met with Dr Ardra Cole who is a social scientist with a particular interest in using art in research, with a focus on people who care for those with dementia. She has done some amazing projects which involve working closely with caregivers, collecting their experiences, then creating artistic installations which also reflect her own and her academic colleagues experience of having mothers with Alzheimer’s disease.  For me it was a fascinating insight into portraying the written word in a public space with relevant artefacts and images, not just verses in a printed pamphlet on a dusty shelf.  The most striking installation in public being ‘Life Lines’ which included a washing line  with underwear  worn by older women from baby to later life.  Responses from the public included the line above and other comments such as ‘The public need to know there is nothing dirty or unclean about  Alzheimer’s disease.’

AND she has set up a not for profit organisation  for ageing dogs, ageing people, encouraging empathy, give those with dementia a role as giving care- not just receiving,  and companionship.  http://www.elderdog.ca     Fab idea.

While I was at the university I called in at the art gallery where there was an exhibition of art produced by former students. It was a coincidence that one piece was also using clothes- ‘Blanket Sacrifice’ was a pile of sheep sized/shaped blankets stuffed with old clothes. Striking.

Blanket Sacrifice

Blanket Sacrifice

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Tuesday-it must be Halifax, Nova Scotia.

For some years, I have been a big fan of Alastair Macleoud who has written the most beautiful short stories set in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. I was lucky enough to attend a workshop last year run by his son, Alexander who is another fine writer, and we talked about the similarities between Nova Scotia and Northumberland – both on the east coast, both rural with a history of mining, fishing, both becoming tourist destinations as the old industries fade away. The combination of the stories and the geography made me decide to include this area in my study visit – not least because the rest of the trip has been city based and I needed to find some rural writing projects.

Anyway, it’s Tuesday and I’m here in Halifax after another middle of the night start (note to self- when the itinerary says 6.30am flight, that’s when the plane leaves, NOT when you have to get up- the getting up is at least three hours before that! Rethink the itinerary) so after one flight from Milwaukee to New York, followed by another to Halifax, I’ve learnt a few more lessons about planning for travel.
Alexander met me for a welcoming drink and quick guide to this lovely old city, I’ve had a walk down at the harbour and realise that there is water at every point in my journey, such a calming and reassuring presence. I find that pizza is also very calming before I collapse into another weirdo accommodation which describes itself ‘new, unique, modern, European short-term rental accommodation’. Roughly translated as ‘student hostel’. Mmmmmmm. More lessons learnt.

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Slipping through stereotypes.

Thanks to Anne Basting and Joan Williamson,  I was invited this morning to be part of a Timeslips session at a day care centre with a person-centred, creative approach to dementia. Timeslips was designed by Anne to give older people with dementia the role of story-teller at a time in their lives when most of their social roles have faded away. It starts with a trained facilitator welcoming the group of 12 -15 older people and choosing a picture as the focus for the story. Then each person  contributes to the names of the characters  in the story, their ages, why they are there, what happened next.  Today’s story was set in France with two children,  dressed as aliens,  talking to a policeman. It ended as they went back to Mars ‘saddened but wiser’.  The session involved a lot of laughter, discussion, conversation and was followed by some movement, singing, dance and each person thanked for their contribution. Their creativity and imagination certainly cut across stereotypes of older people with dementia having ‘lost it’.

Last day in Milwaukee,  celebrated with a working lunch at a fab Middle Eastern café, walk along the lake, visit to Harley Davidson museum shop, tea with Joan and Mark in their lovely home and a ton of information, ideas, memories to take home (eventually) but Nova Scotia tomorrow.

Entrance to day centre-bench designed by older people

Entrance to day centre-bench designed by older people

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