The art of unlocking memory and forging friendships
Hands-on arts and crafts projects are being used to enrich the lives of care centre residents, writes Emer O'Reilly-Hyland
CREATIVITY – it's great for the head. I've long since worked my way through dull and down periods of my life with a pen, a paint brush or a rolling pin in my hand. Life is SO unfair? Pummel it out on a piece of dough; not only will you get all your frustrations out, you'll have a delicious loaf with your cuppa afterwards.
Kids driving you crazy? Paint every minute detail and colour nuance of a single rose on a canvas and hours will pass in peaceful harmony. Worried about work? Let it out, on paper, all your fears and anxieties, and you'll at least start to sort the rational from the irrational.
Trust me, I have eaten lots of cake, penned plenty of woeful prose and painted lots of bad, and not so bad, art, and in so doing have calmed my soul. Yes, it may be until the next crisis occurs, but that's life, isn't it? But I've learned this, it's the creative act that's important, not the end result.
So, when I came across a newsy piece saying that creativity is now being used to help people who suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia, I was interested. The national organisation, Age and Opportunity, has set up Creative Exchanges, a training programme for carers, which helps ageing people to reach their full potential.
The first group of 16 graduates is testing out the theory in care centres all over Ireland. What has emerged are stories of music helping to create a connection with people with dementia; arts and crafts reducing anxiety levels and depression, while improving self expression and interaction with others. In some cases, there is evidence that creative activities have lifted people's moods to such an extent that their need for medication has dropped. I decided to check it out at first hand.
I visited Kiltipper Woods in Tallaght, a care centre with 120 residents, most of them in their 70s through to 90+. While they aren't all dependent, the majority of the residents need some form of assistance and a large proportion have some form of memory loss.
Clare Healy is Activities Co-Ordinator at Kiltipper and is one of that first batch of Creative Exchanges graduates. Clare has devised hands-on creative projects for the residents. Given that there must be quite a variance in abilities among residents, she uses simple art techniques that can be applied to everyone. When I met her, she was laying out a large sheet of paper alongside lots of objects to stimulate the imagination. "People choose an object, and a crayon, paintbrush or pencil and they draw it as quickly as possible, then they change around," she explained. "You get a huge picture of people's different interpretations of each object."
Another project she has found works well with many of the residents is in the area of looking and talking about art. Again, it's a simple idea, but effective, where she encourages residents to talk about a picture of an instantly recognisable scene, like the sea. They discuss the feelings behind the picture which helps them to open up and share their own stories and memories, and in that way, they learn about each other.
But it's when we pop along to the Day Room to see one of Clare's 'arty' afternoons in full swing that I see for myself the healing powers of creativity. There are a number of large round tables in the room, each covered with a craft mat. At one table lies the project they're currently working on and I can see the residents are waiting for Clare to guide them; there's another table laden with paint pots and brushes and jars of water; yet another has magazines and books and the tea trolley is on its way.
Clare shows me their latest project, a Friendship Tree. It's an extraordinary-looking work – yes, it is a tree, chopped from the Centre's lovely garden, about six feet in height, with branches spanning perhaps three feet in width. It is covered in brightly coloured bits of fabric and knit pieces, and there are decorations and a whole mish-mash of ribbons and bows and dangly bits. It's colourful and quirky and fun.
"The Friendship Tree idea was given to me on the course, by a lady called Elizabeth, and it has helped us learn about each other's lives," explains Clare. "Everyone who wants to has added a piece, and if they can't make something, they wrap bits of fabric."
It may be all dressed and remarkable now, but resident, Annie, recalls that her initial reaction to the bare tree was, "What on earth are you doing with that?", while some of the others chime in that they also voiced their doubts with various remarks: "You don't knit trees!" and "That's daft!" and "That's ridiculous!"
But then one of the "creative friends", Carmel, showed me the ribbon she'd tied in a bow on the tree and talked about how it reminded her of going to dances when she was younger, how she loved getting dressed up and doing her make-up. Carmel's daughter Carolyn, who happened to be visiting, adds that, as a child, she used to love watching her mother getting ready and how she vividly remembers her mum bringing home fun hats and balloons, whistles and swizzle sticks, that would have been left on the tables at the dances.
Carolyn is going to bring some golf tees for Carmel to hang on the tree, because, "Golf was a big part of mum's social life with dad and she was actually Lady Captain at one point."
Someone has attached a teabag to a branch to represent all the friendships that are formed over a cuppa and, Clare adds, "because everyone agreed that it would be shameful if someone called to the house and you hadn't any tea to offer them!" I also spot a baby's hat "to represent all the babies that have been born to the residents throughout their lives."
And what about the white ribbons and lace? "These represent all the weddings," says Clare. "I asked one of our gentlemen what he wore on his wedding day and he couldn't tell me. So I asked him how he felt, and he remembered feeling very lucky when he saw his wife." There's a sewing kit from a lady who made all her own clothes, including her wedding dress: "She felt very blessed that she had exactly the dress she wanted, because she made it," says Clare. There's a little knitted bag by a lady who always carried a bag, "stuffed with everything, including her knitting."
I can see that these few bare branches have become so much more than a garden remnant. The Friendship Tree and all of Clare's creative projects make a distinct difference in the lives of older people. "Engaging people in something creative is almost like shining a light on them," Clare says. "It helps them to relax, keeps them focused and helps trigger memories."
Clare clearly enjoys her work and understands the suffering experienced by residents with illnesses such as dementia and Alzheimer's – the loss of memory, the lack of control and the growing inability to communicate – the fear that this brings is a form of torture, particularly for those sufferers who are aware of that loss. It is not an easy job, but she has the ability to reach them. "Sometimes people get the words wrong but we know what they mean and can fill in the gaps.
"Some people might reach out physically, touch or look. They want engagement in that way and we learn to read their reactions."
There is no doubt in my mind that Creative Exchanges works, and that people like Clare are a God-send for residents of care centres and nursing homes. "I'm very blessed," she tells me, "I get to come to work every day and have fun with people. There's not many people who can say that." It's her creative friends who are lucky!
As I leave Kiltipper Woods Care Centre, the tea and bickies arrive, and someone starts to sing. Creative Exchanges touches their hearts and, as I drive away, I feel that my heart too has been touched.
Health & Living