Reminiscence: a workshop for people affected by dementia

by Claire Bolderson

A man and a woman sit opposite each other in the centre of the Morris Space, Park Theatre’s airy, top-floor rehearsal room. Silently, using gestures and animated facial expressions they tell the story of a train journey. 

All appears to be going well until the woman gets up from her seat to visit the loo. There, to her obvious mortification, the “door” (actually a large piece of cloth) falls open to reveal all. 

Laughter is followed by applause before another group step forward and the next scene begins.

This is the Park Players Reminiscence group, a workshop for people affected by dementia and their carers.  They’re joined each week by Park Theatre volunteers for sessions that begin with drawing, move on to some basic Tai Chi, relaxation and breathing exercises, and then to creating drama scenes.

“It’s very physical and very instinctive,” says actor Amy Allen, co-leader of the workshops. The aim is to create what Allen calls “a friendly, creative environment” in which participants can express themselves freely, often dramatizing their own experiences. “There’s no pressure to stick to any rules,” she says.

And crucially, no pressure to remember anything.

Instead, each workshop builds gradually on the last. Some participants have difficulty communicating verbally but that doesn’t hold them back. All the Reminiscence Players throw themselves into the exercises and sketches with enthusiasm. Park volunteers are instructed to follow their lead.

“We just investigate ideas,” Amy Allen says. So, whether exploring themes like temperature or tension, or creating scenes with specific props, “they can do whatever they want, whatever it means for them.”

After the workshop, the Reminiscence Players go down to the second floor bar for coffee, sandwiches and conversation. One participant jokes with another about the topic of their latest sketch. A third is unembarrassed to acknowledge he does not recognise any of his own drawings from earlier sessions.

It’s clear the players have formed friendships, and not just with other members of the group. Café bar General Manager Tom Bailey knows the workshop participants by name. He and his staff usually stop by to say hello.

That’s exactly what was hoped for when the group was first set up last year says Park Development Director, Dorcas Morgan: “We wanted the participants to feel it’s their space, that they have ownership of the whole theatre.”

At the moment, the class is small. There are just seven regulars plus a handful of volunteers. The co-ordinators are conscious that expanding it much further could prove disruptive for participants already having to cope with many changes in their lives.

Instead, says Park Creative Director Melli Marie, the theatre would like to run more workshops and, “maybe even go into local care homes where there are people with more advanced dementia,” or whose mobility challenges make it hard for them to get out.

That would be fine with workshop coordinator Amy Allen. “I’ve become more and more passionate about this,” she says, adding that at first she had worried it might be difficult or depressing to work with people experiencing progressive memory loss.

But, it turns out, the opposite has been the case.

Participants may not be quite the same person they were before the onset of dementia but Allen believes that “drama lets them express the best of themselves at any particular moment”.  And in the process, she has learned a lot herself. “Every week I come away uplifted, even rejuvenated,” she says.

 

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