Journalist Alison Winward writes about Happy Days Dementia Workshop – How reminiscing can help …

By Alison Winward – Journalist, writer, editor.

A Made Near Me about making peace

There’s colouring books and toys; retro phones and vintage biscuit tins; bright, cheerful posters – and (part of) a life-sized photograph of a mid-century living room.

But I’m not in a pre-school nursery, or some ‘ironic’ kitsch homeware shop, I’m in Gillian Hesketh’s workshop near Poulton-le-Fylde, Lancashire. Not 100 per cent “Near Me”, I admit. But what is Made here is so kind – and potentially so relevant, if not for us possibly for someone we love, and if not now maybe some time in the future – that I felt I could, should, stretch my definition of “Near Me” a couple of dozen or so miles to include it here.

For at Happy Days Gillian, and her colleague Sue, create resources for people living with dementia, their carers and people who work with them. Not ‘living aid’-type items like stair rails and easy-grip crockery to address physical problems, but things to enhance people’s mental and emotional wellbeing. So I suppose you could say this is a Made Near Me about making peace for distressed minds.

Some of Gillian’s resources are intended to be used directly by people with dementia, for example, “activity aprons” embellished with zips, pockets, D-rings, textured braid and other things to keep anxious hands busy.

But many are meant to be used more by carers, to help them find out more about the people they are caring for, the idea being that the more you know about someone and the better you understand them, the easier it is to provide the care that works best for them and affords them the best quality of life.

The colouring books of the introduction, for example, aren’t children’s ones, or even those trendy ‘mindfulness’ ones of mandalas and the like; instead, they feature simplified images of adults acting as adults: a man sitting in his shed surrounded by tools, say, or people dancing.

As Gillian tells me: “The main thing is they’re mature. Sometimes when we get to the care homes they’ve got colouring-in books but they’ve got teddy bears in and kiddies’ toys and drums. I don’t like to see grown adults with them – they’re not children – so that’s why our colouring pages have people jiving, a juke box, camper van, a lady using a Hoover.”

The person living with dementia can colour in a picture, giving them a sense of achievement as well as keeping them occupied, but a carer can also use the picture as a way of finding out more about them. Have they done much DIY, say? What sort of things have they made or done? Can they dance? What sort of dancing? Where did they dance when they were younger? (Who knows, maybe they even met their partner while out dancing?)

Then there’s the snakes and ladders with a difference that Gillian has devised. It’s got the snakes, it’s got the ladders, but it’s also got squares containing what Gillian calls “chat prompts”: questions like “Who was your best friend at school?” “ What did you do for a living?”

“For the person with dementia it’s about the act of playing the game, it’s not that you will win or the other person will win, it’s the act of remembering the game and what they did when they were playing the game when they were younger or with their family,” explains Gillian.

Postcards, posters and other images, including part of the life-sized image of a living room
And take those cheery pictures. A poster featuring a simple image of an ice-cream cone will brighten up a care home dining room. But it can also give a carer a chance to chat to a person living with dementia about their favourite flavour, memories of eating ice-cream, other foods they like (or don’t like), and so on. A copy of a vintage advert for a seaside resort can lead to a discussion about holidays.

“A nostalgic image gives people something to look at but it’ll also prompt memory and that prompts conversation, and that can help care teams engage with residents – and residents engage with each other,” says Gillian.

“Once you can find out about the person, through different ways and means – like colours and pictures and tactile items – you can find out what they enjoy, and that helps the carer, whether in a care team, or one-to-one at home or in a residential home or rehabilitation hospital, engage with the person in meaningful conversations.”

Ironically, it was creating materials for young people that led to Gillian devising products for people at the other end of life.

About a decade ago, after getting a degree in English Language, Literature and Linguistics, she was studying for an MA in creative writing at Lancaster and she started exploring using long-term memory to enhance creative writing, ie draw on memory to elicit emotion then use that emotion to make a piece of writing more evocative for the reader.

It set her thinking about whether something similar might be helpful for young people who were struggling: give them an opportunity to examine something that had happened to them and how it had made them feel, then they could use what they had discerned from that to come up with ways of moving forward from their difficult situation.

That led to her coming up with creative ways for teachers and the like to find out more about troubled children faster and more easily than they might otherwise do. A worksheet “About Me” might reveal, for example, that the reason a child was bunking off school was because they were caring for an ill parent.

After working with Blackpool Young Carers she was asked if she could produce materials for people with dementia.

She started by devising social activities for people with dementia, then moved into putting together ‘memory boxes’ – containing memorabilia around a set theme, such as World War II or sewing, and ‘prompt cards’ of questions about the memorabilia in the box.

Now she also creates ‘reminiscence areas’ for care homes, hospitals and the like. An example in the workshop is a set of ‘pantry shelves’ containing modern copies of vintage biscuit tins and flour containers, packets of Beechams powers and – authentic! – Green Shield Stamps.

Part of Happy Days’ collection of memorabilia
The repro tins, along with the postcards, posters and retro games, aren’t made in-house but bought in from the sorts of companies that supply to museum gift shops and the like. But Gillian’s become a dab hand at sourcing original items, from teapots to cameras, vases to typewriters.

Original resources devised by Gillian include large-piece jigsaws and ‘memory’ card games (again as much about prompting conversations as playing the game), and communication boards, featuring pictures of items and activities that someone can simply point at rather than have to put into words what they want (or perhaps don’t want).

At first glance the jigsaws and games might, like the colouring books, look like something you’d find in a toyshop, but a second glance reveals that they – again like the colouring books – feature adults living adult lives.

Giliian and her activity guides
There’s also a range of books of activities, games and suchlike for carers to try with people in care facilities, and one designed specifically for those caring for a loved one at home.

Alongside the games and activities – from ‘polishing trinkets’ to digging out and revamping a bird table and making fatballs for the birds – there’s serious information on dementia and advice (“in bite-sized chunks”, as Gillian puts it) on keeping someone with dementia safe and healthy and making a home dementia-friendly.

(Top tip: people with dementia often struggle with shadows and black things. Gillian recounts a story about a woman whose husband could not settle at bedtime, until she realised that the cushions and pillows she took off the bed and put on a chair each night were casting shadows that unsettled him. And people with dementia will often walk around a black rug, because they think it’s a hole.)

Pre-Covid, Gillian ran workshops for carers and care-home staff, in which she tried to give them an idea of what it is like to have dementia, by, for example, making them put on goggles and earplugs and rubber gloves with buttons in the fingers then giving them tasks to do.

“People with dementia, “ she tells me, “don’t have it at tea-time, or the next day, or next week, they’ve got it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. So once the staff have been through the process of being disorientated so much, when we chat about how it must feel to feel like that all the time, it seems to click with them so much more. They say they understand how frustrated the residents might be when they’re getting angry or sad or want to leave.”

Covid, obviously, put a halt to that, so during the pandemic she turned the workshops into training packs, to be sent to to homes so they could run their own training sessions.

Thanks to word of mouth recommendations and putting in the hours on networking, Happy Days now has a presence in places ranging from the hospital just up the road in Blackpool to as far afield as Bermuda and Australia.

Despite Happy Days’ reach, Gillian is rather modest about what she does. “A lot of it is common sense,” she says, “it’s just that took the time, I chose to do this.

“When I do a workshop I say, ‘This isn’t rocket science, it’s just common sense’… It’s not re-inventing the wheel, we’re just taking the time to look at things and make more effort to care, to engage.

“We can’t leave people in a care home with dementia just sat round a room like they used to do years ago.”

Find out more about Happy Days here: https://www.dementiaworkshop.co.uk/

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