The capital town of Victoria on Vancouver Island, as the name suggests, has a long history of British settlement with many buildings that would sit easily in Harrogate or Cheltenham. The main difference is the sea, with its harbour for cruise ships to stop on their way to Alaska. When I took a bus trip to a residential suburb by the ocean, it was clear that the demographics were similar to Torquay with an older population enjoying sea air and mild climate. It was in Victoria that I met Isa Milman, poet and memoirist, and her client Kathleen.
Each week, Isa collects Kathleen from her home where she lives with her daughter, and takes her either to a study room in the local library or for a walk along a local nature trail. A widow originally from Scotland, Kathleen had married and brought up her family in Canada. Her long term memory enabled her to describe being a physical education teacher in Scotland, encouraging reluctant schoolboys to learn Scottish dancing, but her short term memory was very limited. If the weather is mild they walk along some of the beautiful local pathways and sit under an old Garry oak. When Isa read aloud the poem they had written about the tree, Kathleen clutched her abdomen and repeatedly said ‘I feel it here. I feel it here.’
Participating in the session, I observed some of the activities Isa uses with her clients which could directly inform my own work with individuals with dementia. For example, building on Kathleen’s interest in travel, they use the resources in the library to look at photos from around the globe, sometimes creating a poem or a memoir or a story from the conversation.
Another writing activity which Isa had suggested was the opportunity for Kathleen to write a letter to those people who are important to her- living and deceased. This gave Kathleen the chance to express her emotions and her memories: one letter to her deceased mother, one to her dead husband, one to her daughter living far away, another to an old friend. Although she had not held a pen for some years, Isa encouraged Kathleen in signing the letters to those people who would receive them in the post: her daughter living abroad, her old friend from afar. When Isa read some of the letters aloud, Kathleen clutched her abdomen and said
‘I feel it here, I feel it here.’
Throughout my study visit, I was experiencing discussions about identity through art forms, history, people’s own stories. I noted the experience of First Nation Canadians celebrating their identity through their roots, their land and their connection with the forest and nature. The session with Isa and Kathleen reinforced the importance of maintaining a sense of self or identity at all stages of life, including dementia. Back in the UK, Grayson Perry’s programmes about identity, which included one on Alzheimer’s disease, reinforced my view of ‘identity’ being something which is multiple and shifting throughout our lives; our past informs our present identity. To me, Kathleen was the person in front, not behind, the memory loss. She was full of vitality and interest in the present moment. Whilst hearing about her emotional connection with the Garry oak, as well as her memories of the Scottish woods and highland, I was reminded of my visit to the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver which exhibits many aspects of First Canadian history with past and present use of wood and natural fibres.
The session with Kathleen also reminded me of the privileged role of the writer or artist working so closely with individuals with dementia who are able to be so honest and forthcoming about their emotions, a reminder of the responsibility to respect and communicate those words to wider family or community, a reminder of the importance of relationships between those people working and caring for people with dementia.
There is often an assumption that using creative writing with older people with dementia will automatically lead to reminiscence. I shy away from those stereotypes, allowing people to drift in and out of the past as they need to, in the same way I would lead any creative writing workshop. Isa and Kathleen demonstrated how their writing together drifts in and out of the past, capturing emotional responses to the present moment and the natural worlds around them. Close connections which enable people with dementia to express their views about their daily lives which can be replicated here in the UK.
Sometimes we meet people, albeit fleetingly, who stay with us because they have taught us something about how to live. From Kathleen, I re-learned about honesty and integrity in being ourselves, to live a life where we feel able to share our emotions, to allow ourselves to fully experience life in all its joys and worries, not to shy away from the troublesome sadness’s; they make us who we are. Growing older, losing loved ones, losing one’s memory, they all bring some sadness, as well as happy memories and a sense of pride and fulfilment. It is the full spectrum of these emotions that the writer, the listener, the reader, the care staff need to honour.
Kathleen: writer, poet, traveller, teacher, nature lover, mother, Scottish dancer.