The past is not another country

Sarah ReedMaking conversation in a care home is hard work. The commonest opening gambit is probably, ‘What did you have for lunch?’ which is not a question to which the answer is going to be a) very interesting, unless Heston Blumenthal has popped in, or b) readily available to anyone with a cloudy memory, let alone dementia.

Sarah Reed spent 10 years visiting her mother in a care home, hearing visitors making similar, hopeless inquiries. She realized family members and residents needed help relating to each other in a disconcerting new setting and came up with Many Happy Returns, a series of A5 picture cards designed to inspire reminiscence.

The cards feature objects and events related to what Professor David Rubin has called the ‘reminiscence bump’ – a period in life, between the ages of five and around 25, when the most vivid images and persistent memories are laid down.

The first beautifully-produced set of 26 cards shows artefacts and activities from the 1940s – a sewing kit, a ration book, cleaning the front step, evacuation. On the back is a few lines of background, designed to give younger people a way into the subject, and  some conversational prompts: ‘Who cut and styled your hair? Whose hair did you admire?’

A set from the 1950s has followed, which seem richer, perhaps because life had got richer, perhaps because the pointers to discussion are a bit more tangential – so, for example, a box of Television Selection biscuits might prompt a conversation about how early TV sets were often covered with lace cloths, or about favourite programmes.

Long-term memory is more persistent than short-term; older people have been described as entering the vale of anecdote. The cards leave plenty of room for that but also offer the possibility of triggering different stories, of refreshing conversations and drawing families closer. There are benefits for younger people too, in hearing about social history from those who were there.

Sarah Reed is persuasive about the importance of reminiscence in maintaining identity in care homes, where it can so easily be eroded. She is adamant that no one should go into a care home without an autobiographical album of their life story, complete with first-person captions, to enable staff to link the individual back to the person they were before, to approach them as a whole person, not simply a ‘resident’. She runs workshops for care home staff in engaging with older people in ways that maintain their dignity and create real relationships – and also writes a very good blog here.