There’s an Alzheimer’s Society Memory Café at a Housing Trust in north London. Everyone who attends is living with dementia, to varying degrees and I’ve been lucky to spend time there with the regulars to facilitate conversation using Many Happy Returns 40s and 50s Chatterbox cards.
My first visit included one family carer and four housing trust staff members. There were about 18 of us in the room, sitting around small tables with oilskin cloths, on each of which was a small glass vase with a single bright yellow fabric chrysanthemum. The colour of hope, I thought wistfully.
Everyone was wearing a badge and as always, we all introduced ourselves. I noted unusual names – most of those present were local, but a few had arrived here from the Commonwealth or as refugees from war. I knew that meant we would likely hear some intriguing stories.
The room was quiet and expectant. My first prompt was to seed thoughts of childhood – toys and games and freedom – adult authority. Tentatively to begin with, the group started sharing memories of favourite toys from childhood. Descriptions of dolls and dolls’ houses, of dolls’ prams and dressing up family pets to wheel around in them, of cap pistols and Painting by Numbers, these soon became stories of constantly being sent outside regardless of the season, (even when unwell) of running around unsupervised, of climbing trees, of innocent ‘gang’ games, and in winter, of mucking about in the (helpfully warm) local tube stations.
As often the case, despite their relative poverty, they described lives of happy, unfettered freedom hardly known by children today. One man who said his family could afford no toys at all, described his pet Collie, ‘Sailor’. “Rather an odd name for a dog I suppose!” he laughed, “he never ever went on a boat. I trained him and he was at my side all the time. He would do that thing that Collies do, crouching down to listen. He was really clever.” There was a lady who had grown up in Greece. Her language has reached that stage where her words sound quite feasible but are nonetheless, challenging to understand – or even hear, spoke with poignancy and pleasure about playing with her sisters in the sunshine on her local island beach.
Then we spread the Many Happy Returns Chatterbox cards arbitrarily around the tables. Every group – by now animated and chatting away happily, carried on. As always, prompted by the subjects, pictures and information on the cards, the volume in the room rose swiftly and dramatically as these fascinating older people revealed their histories to one another.
Their memories now spread across the landscape of their lives, their relationships, jobs, children and grandchildren.
As always, the volunteers expressed astonishment at the instant connection prompted by the cards, at the enjoyment and pleasure they observed, and at the sheer amount of conversation and animation. As always, the participants commented on the cards and how well they prompted meaningful memories.
As always, like all good parties, people didn’t really want to stop sharing and lingered on beyond the finish time to continue chatting.
And as I have often found, as I trudged back to the bus stop, I felt a real sense of satisfaction that the chatterbox cards had once again delivered. Prompting so much fun and excited communication for everyone that day at the Memory Café. I also felt a deep sense of privilege and wonderment to be able to bear witness to their hidden treasure troves of life experience and history.