Stories from the West Side- Chapter 2


‘We love Angie because she always said YES.’

‘Do you want to do some street theatre, Angie? YES.’

‘Do you want a visit from a writer to become a poet, Angie? YES.’

‘Do you want to learn something new, Angie? YES’

These are lines from a ten minute play performed hourly by three actors, as part of Islands of Milwaukee (IOM) weekend exhibition. Angie was one of the older people who had been involved in the two year project which included a visit from a writer and artist. She had written a poem about a ‘Stroker’ (great name for someone who has had a stroke) and shared her enthusiasm to try anything new, especially painting, if only she could get out of the house.

For the past two years, Anne Basting and colleagues have been concerned about the number of local older people living alone and isolated. The IOM project was developed by a team that….

‘…sought to engage older people living alone or under–connected in their communities. Using playful Questions of the Day we invited folks to share their thoughts, write poems, create stories, sing songs and dance and to connect to each other and their communities at large. ‘

Cards with Questions of the Day were delivered to isolated older people through meals on wheels drivers and home care providers during the two year process. In response, many older people commented that they were unable to get across the road because the traffic lights changed too quickly. IOM took this as a key issue that needed to be changed in order to keep people connected. So they invited the Mayor to three street theatre performances at traffic crossings, involving older people, actors and community members.  Angie was actively involved in showing just how difficult it was to get across the traffic lights with a walking aid – and young parents found it just as difficult with toddlers and pushchairs.   As a result, the timings of some of the traffic lights were changed.

Milwaukee (Native American name for ‘gathering by the water’) sits on the edge of Lake Michigan but is perhaps best known to  British TV viewers for the series Happy Days and the original manufacturing site of Harley Davidson motorbikes.  On Sept 20/21, Milwaukee  had an ‘Open Doors’ weekend when all the historic buildings were open for the public to visit, including the famous City Hall with its central space open to the eight floors above, lined with beautiful wooden balustrade and iron railings.  The IOM exhibition and performance at Milwaukee City Hall invited the general public (and a couple of Winston Churchill Fellows from UK!!) to meet and engage  with the project and to consider ‘How will I stay connected to community as I age, how can I be part of creating a more connected community for others?’

Sojourn Theatre performed the ten minute play every hour, capturing the concerns of older people they had contacted, performing songs, words and dance of four individuals, including Angie. At the end of each performance, a shower of white cards fluttered down from the eighth floor, each one repeating a Question of the Day which had gone out to older people living alone.

As a volunteer ‘docent’, I had the job of inviting members of the public to write responses to the questions on the cards, which were then hung on  ‘washing lines’ next to information boards fixed on the balustrade above the performance and installation. Many of the questions were about barriers to being involved in their community.  ‘What is the well-worn path outside your door?’ was the question that I asked various members of the public as the performance finished.

I’m afraid to walk outside my door because I fear I will be attacked. A girl was shot near my house just recently.’

Some of the older people involved came along to City Hall during the weekend event and performed a song or a poem, including Angie who read her poem.

Angie reading poetry with Gary Glazner at the Islands of Milwaukee event

Angie reading poetry with Gary Glazner at the Islands of Milwaukee event

A small, enthralled audience gathered round as New York poet Gary Glazner (more about him shortly) performed Angie’s poem with her, using his ‘Call and Response’ technique of echoing each line of her poetry.

The Islands of Milwaukee project, where the process is as important as the outcome, is a fantastic example of using creative writing and other art forms when consulting with older people about their neighbourhood and the development of Dementia Friendly Communities. Small changes can have a big impact on individuals, where friendliness and understanding comes at a very small price, where the written words become both performance and policy changing. Involving older people in performance and creativity also challenges stereotypes about older people, especially those with dementia,  and their ability to contribute to the cultural life of their community.

One successful outcome from the IOM project was the innovative, ongoing partnership across all the organisations involved. This resulted in changes in services as the delivery drivers interacted more with their clients when they distribute the meals on wheels; the care assistants had a new topic of conversation every time they took in a ‘Question of the Day’. Older people were seen as having opinions and involvement in decision-making, not just recipients of care; their sense of self being strengthened each time they shared their thoughts and views.  The financial cost of this kind of project can be offset by healthier and happier individuals who are less isolated.  One of the statements in the play was ‘Social isolation is the equivalent of fifteen cigarettes a day. That’s a lot of cigarettes’. We all know the impact of cigarettes on health and subsequent health services.

Angie did go on to learn painting and her artwork was seen by thousands on Twitter. She continues to speak out about changes needed to make it easier for people with mobility difficulties to get out and about, reminding us that small changes can make a big difference.

Angie: poet, painter, campaigner, performer.

Islands of Milwaukee installation

Islands of Milwaukee installation


Stories from the West Side- Chapter 1


‘I was in England in 1946. Met French, Russian and British soldiers there. ’

He tells me this eight times in the next thirty minutes, fidgeting in his seat beside me, hands restless, eyes on mine.

‘I’m Romi, here on a study visit from England.’

‘I was in England. In 1946. Met French, Russian and British soldiers there. ’

‘Well’ I reply, ‘you will know of Winston Churchill. ‘

He nods, he is interested, we have a connection. He leans across to hear me better as I carry on.

‘When Churchill died, a fund was set up in his memory; its motto is Travel to Learn, Return to Inspire. That’s why I’m here in Milwaukee, to learn more about how you do writing and storytelling so that I can tell the folks back home.’

This morning’s Timeslips storytelling session is about begin; fifteen older people and two staff in a circle at a day care centre where most of the participants are at some stage of dementia.  I know a bit about Timeslips, I’ve done the on-line training programme. As a writer working with people with dementia, I’m keen to see how the process works in practice here in Milwaukee, hometown of Anne Basting, creator of Timeslips, and training coordinator Joan Williamson.

When each person is asked to introduce themselves to the group, Robert tells us this is new to him, his wife just died, he doesn’t want to be here, he doesn’t want to be anywhere. There is a silence as we acknowledge both his honesty and his grief; it is a challenge to know how to deal with raw emotion in a group setting.  One of the facilitators acknowledges his loss, tells him that his daughter brought him this morning, that he will be going home after lunch. But right now, we are going to create a story.

The two staff have specific roles- one as the group facilitator and the other to write up the story as it develops onto a flipchart; they hand out copies of the same picture to each participant. The group is going to create a story from this picture and see their words written up on the flipchart.

‘What is going on here?’ asks the facilitator.

Good question, I think, as I look closely at the black and white picture of a 1950s French Gendarme talking to two small boys dressed as aliens, yes aliens, each pointing a gun at the Gendarme while he writes something in his notebook.  I turn to Robert, he is mystified as he looks at the picture, so am I.

‘What’s going on in this picture?’ repeats the facilitator, followed by other prompts, as gradually the group creates a story.  There is skill involved in managing the responses from every individual in the group, every word gets written up, even when there are conflicting views.

‘What are the ages of the two boys in the picture?’

‘About nine.’ says one person.

‘Seventy two.’ says another.

This all goes on the flipchart, with names to remind the group who said what. During the session, the facilitator at the flipchart reads back the story so that everyone is kept up to date as it develops.

‘The boys are aliens, they are in France.  They have come to earth to take this French policeman back to Mars as an example of the human species. The aliens have water pistols. All this talk about water makes us want to go to the bathroom.’

Sitting next to me, Robert is really laughing at that, shouting out his comments too.

‘They are in France. I met French soldiers when I was in England in 1946.’

After about forty five minutes, everybody has said something about the story, their words are on the flipchart.  Then the facilitator asks

‘How do we end the story?’

There is silence for a few minutes, I wonder if the facilitator should intervene, but we rest with the stillness until one man stumbles to find the words, then he says

‘They went back to Mars. Sadder but wiser.’

Perfect ending.  The whole story gets read out one more time; this will be written up, posted on the wall for everyone to read, perhaps brought together with others for a storytelling session with family and friends. Robert is smiling as we all give a round of applause to the whole group.

Anne Basting, author of Forget Memory, designed Timeslips in order to give people with dementia the role of ‘storyteller’ to express who they are- ‘a way to be something other than a sick person.’  She based this on the key concepts that everyone has the capacity for creativity, that people with dementia can learn, there is equal emphasis on the product (story)and the relationships/emotions at play in the process of storytelling; Timeslips has no wrong answers. At a time when most of their social roles have diminished due to memory loss and other limitations that come with dementia, Timeslips can help staff and relatives to see the person as they are now, to be creative with them even if only for a few moments.

There is half an hour to fill before lunch and the staff facilitate an impromptu exercise session with the same calm skill they have used with the storytelling. In each pair, one person makes a movement and the other copies. Robert gets into this straight away, he is the leader, he is in charge- he lifts his right arm up, I copy; he turns to the left, I copy. And so on, until he gets bored and says to me

‘Let’s dance.  I’ve danced since I was three years old. I love to dance.’

He puts an arm around my waist and begins to waltz me round the floor. In just one hour, through participation in Timeslips, he is transformed from sad and lonely to dancing, smiling and talking.

What would it take to run Timeslips sessions in every dementia care setting in the UK?  A few hours on-line staff training, a change in attitude, a willingness to try something new, take risks. Mostly it takes a commitment to prioritize relationships to the same extent as physical care tasks and the belief that older people with dementia are capable of being creative storytellers.  It requires trust that we can all be creative, it takes knowledge, borne out in scientific evidence, that creative activity can bring about calm, that it has a purpose.  Creativity shows us who we are, reveals aspects of our personal identity which is so important to all of us, especially those in dementia care.

As I get ready to leave the room, I notice Robert dancing the tango with a member of staff; other people are talking, moving about and admiring the artwork on the walls. I watch Robert twirling around the room, his face alight with a smile, living in the moment, dancing in the moment.

Robert: storyteller, dancer, father, widower, soldier

Milwaukee, lakeside city

Milwaukee, city by the lake