Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Storytelling Empowering Dementia

The strength of Storytelling as an empowering tool for the older community living with dementia, is far reaching. Storytelling can quite literally change, not just how we perceive ourselves, but how others perceive us. It can change strategy & make the world a better place. Sounds like a tall story, doesn't it, but I know this first hand and present to you here, some personal reflections regarding my work.

I have just returned home from a Storytelling workshop at Llanelli Leisure Centre kindly funded by Artscare Gofal Celf & Communities First. It was not an ordinary Storytelling Workshop. Let me give you some background as to why.

I first met Louie at a Dementia Friendly Care Home in Llanelli in my Storytelling & Music Workshop, where she asked me if I would 'save her story'.

At 92 years of age, with her memories falling like autumn leaves to the wind, we set about creating a resource that would not only help her to remember herself, but be a beautiful reminisence resource for those who, like Louie, grew up in a different era.

Together, Louie, her son, daughter in law and I, created a book & a talking CD, where Louie tells her stories & I sing them as folk songs, as well as a Story Map of her memories. 

The family very kindly gave permission for me to use the work as part of my MA Drama, where I achieved a Distinction & won an Outstanding Contribution Award from the University of South Wales.

Postcards from Louie book & CD became part of the RNIB talking book service, and is now held by all Carmarthenshire Libraries, as well as archived at The National Library of Wales. There is also a Welsh Language version held at the People's Collection Wales.

We held a performance sharing of Postcards from Louie at Greenspace Gallery, Carmarthen, just up the road from where Louie's Dad use to park up the horse and cart for Llamas Fayre.

I went into Primary Schools with Postcards from Louie and trained children how to collate life stories with older people living with dementia in the local Old People's Home.

I went back the The Atrium, Cardiff and lectured to undergraduates and told them Louie's Story.

We held a Postcards from Louie tea party for the local children & the older people living at the home and their families, who listened and smiled and laughed and cried along with Louie's Stories of her childhood in Rural West Wales. 

What Louie and I had created, was not just a story but a methodology that empowers an older person with dementia to carry on contributing to their community in a meaningful way, in keeping with who they are,  and who they have been throughout their life.

In addition, we could see how Postcards from Louie changed attitudes and stereotypes within wider circles about Dementia. People opening up and talking for the first time about how dementia had affected their families.

I was invited to give a talk about our book at Llanstephan Historical Society where many members of the community came to hear about their friend that they had lost touch with since her dementia. Storytelling re-connecting communities with their older members.

And Louie's Story did not end here. I was approached by Nick Andrews from Swansea University and began a contract with his team for the Development of Evidence Enriched Practice: A Better Life, collating research on better ways of working with older people. 

Now Louie & I were changing strategy through our storytelling. I worked with 2 further older people creating Storytelling Resources and won a Gold National Care Award for Excellence in Dementia. Louie's daughter in law Jill came with me to the Celebrations in Cardiff.

I went onto create a Dementia Friendly Online Radio Station making and sharing digital life stories with the older community as well as sound maps of places people could no longer get to.

Louie set me on a path that I really did not expect to take. She chose me to save her story & in so doing, we are changing the story of dementia. All this, and  I am a songwriter, a storyteller, a poet, an author. I am a creative. I am not a scientist or a medical professional. I am living proof that the Arts is not just to entertain, it is not just to engage, it is a powerful tool in enabling older people to retain their dignity & empower their own well being & can provide tremendous support for each other.

And today, Jill and I were invited to tell Louie's stories again. It was really quite moving. There were 8 people in the Storytelling Group. 3 little ones, 2 Mums, an older person living with dementia, a teenager & a carer. The 10 of us were transported & I saw again first hand the power of storytelling.

The woman with dementia began the session calling out seemingly inappropriate things but as Louie's stories and songs began to unravel, so she started to shout out her memories instead. I showed her Louie's old collection of postcards that Jill had kindly brought along. 

'Do you remember these stamps?' I asked. 

She ran her fingers over them and looked me straight in the eyes.

'Yes, I do. But I don't know who this is?'

'I think it's King George.' I replied.

'Yes, it is. It's King George.' and her furrowed brow relaxed for the first time.

At the end of the session, I went over to thank her for coming. She held out her hand.

'Hold my hand.' she said and so I did. 

We held hands looking into each others faces, smiling for quite a while. There was no need for words.

On the floor were 2 little ones, sisters. They were drawing their own Story Map like Louie's putting onto it all the things they would like to still remember when they are 92.

There was Nanna and Granpa's house in Scotland, thier home, school, all the family in the car  ...  & London.

'Have you been to London?' Jill asked the children.

'No, but I think it is an important place and so I am making a note to remember it when I am 92.'

As we packed up, I found myself looking forward to our next Postcards from Louie Adventure at Llanelli Library next week. This feels like more than Storytelling or perhaps it is the true essence of what storytelling really is.

We are donating the proceeds from Workshops to the re-launch of the 'Postcards from Louie' book & CD later this year. If you would like to book a workshop, make a kind donation to our work, or pre-order your copies feel free to email  me :

Our Sound Memories Group Page on facebook is:

Our Gofundme page is ...

Thank you for reading,

Cheryl Beer
Sound Memories

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