We are currently working with the residents to explore different ways that we can co-produce designs and objects together, using creative processes and communal making sessions. The idea is to generate meaningful new objects, where personal artefacts from the past may have been lost, and at the same time, to generate new memories, through the shared creative process. The new objects could become tokens for exchange and sharing within the care home environment.
The Tangible Memories team was delighted to hear news today that our work-in-progress paper ‘TopoTiles: Storytelling in Care Homes with Topographic Tangibles’ has been accepted into CHI 2015, the Human Computer Interaction conference, to be held in Seoul later this year.
Here’s more about this international HCI event, which is on the theme of ‘Crossings’, appropriate to our interdisciplinary project: http://chi2015.acm.org
Over the past few months, we have been seeking to develop the group making sessions in another of the care homes, working alongside residents to co-produce proxy objects and ‘objects of exchange’ as design prototypes that capture and represent personal and collective stories.
Evolving from the creative workshops where residents produced ‘tokens of value’ – inscribing wax tablets with a representation of significant memories that were later cast into bronze – we initially offered the same materials and making-based approach to residents of the second care home. We suggested that these tokens could then be exchanged amongst the group with the stories they represented (with or without embedded technologies), thus sharing residents’ experiences with each other and strengthening the home’s community in the process, using these unique personalised objects as a focus.
To begin with, we proposed a theme of ‘favourite walks’ as a topic and trigger for creative making. Participants were asked to recall a memorable route in advance of the sessions, giving them time to reflect on any walk they chose to remember. The aim was then to find the location on the iPad using Google Street View for a virtual visit, and identify it using OS maps online, before tracing over the route, and inscribing a line drawing of the walk onto one of the prepared wax hexagons, ready for casting:
The reaction to this activity was mixed. The theme proved successful and generated one of the most animated and dynamic discussions that had taken place during the project. However, this success came at the cost of participants not engaging with the tools, materials or other creative processes on offer.
These sessions were subsequently adapted in order to introduce a more curatorial method into the process of co-production. One outcome of the favourite walks theme was some lively story-swopping between the residents, about local Bristol landmarks and historic places of interest. Rather than the residents inscribing the wax hexagons with these walking routes by hand, they gave us permission instead, to transform the subjects of their conversations into miniature topographies of the various locations discussed. We used Autodesk Fusion modelling software and a milling machine to achieve a more tactile, 3D topographic hexagon, and laser etching to transpose detailed photographic images of the landmarks into 2D. These hexagonal tiles representing miniature topographies became known as ‘TopoTiles’:
The series of TopoTiles has been shared with small groups of residents, and tested as narrative prompts, tangible user interfaces designed to aid reminiscence and storytelling. Some of our research questions around these manufactured artefacts include:
How can landscape tangibles be used as proxy objects, standing in for landscape and objects unavailable to the storyteller?
Can miniature landscapes aid recollection and storytelling through embodied interaction?
Are ambiguous depictions conducive to more diverse use in storytelling, and can topographic tangibles encourage inclusivity in group sharing situations?
While the TopoTiles represent places of personal significance to the residents, (either specific or ambiguous), the tessellation of these miniature topographies seems to symbolise the network of shared histories across the care home, connecting the individual’s experience with their immediate community, united by a common encounter in the landscape.
This week some of us met our group of residents in the extra care home we’re working with. We wanted to talk to them about their experiences of being a part of the project so far and any ideas they had for the remaining 6 months of the project. We wanted to introduce our new tessellating tiles and 3D printed place markers too and ask them to take them away and see how they worked to stimulate stories over the period of a week. We’d also asked them to bring along any christmassy orientated objects to share with the group.
Residents took turns to tell stories that helped to explain their different motivations and some unintended outcomes for them in the work we’ve been doing with them to remember and share stories. We were treated to tales of one resident’s address to a South Wales mining community debating society supporting gay rights, to another’s memories of his parents break up when he was very young. Motivations included wanting to leave stories for grandchildren and to record aspects of social and political history for prosperity. They also told us about unintended or unexpected outcomes such as becoming closer to each other, sharing moments of fun and laughter with these new friends and becoming closer to family members who they were able to share their memories with. One resident told us it had kept him awake at night thinking and reflecting on his past life!
Before showing the group our new ‘objects’ one resident was keen to share some Christmassy objects with us. She had bought along a hand written recipe book from her school days in which she had her Christmas cake recipe. The well thumbed pages themselves, covered in marzipan marks and evoking memories of school days and family life were placed on the table and discussed by the group. She also had a tin from which she drew cake decorations. She told us that one year she had stopped using the hunters on the Christmas cake as her son disliked hunting and reflected on her ‘hoarding’ instincts and the problems of storage when moving into smaller flats or care home rooms.
We then introduced our prototype proxy objects (see below) – a set of tessellating tiles and proxy objects designed as a result of several place based sessions and experiences with residents. Mixed reactions, especially when we tried to explain the use of RfiD tags to embed stories into the objects but all agreed to take an object and corresponding tile away with them. Looking forward to seeing whether they use them during the week and how effective they were in sparking story sharing with others.
The Tangible Memories team recently had the pleasure of hosting a tea party in each of the three care homes where we are currently working.
This was a great opportunity to celebrate the project so far and to share some of the design prototypes that we have been developing with the residents over the past few months. Alongside the wonderful live music, tea, cakes, flowers and bunting, there were technology demonstrations, and lots of play testing with the project’s design objects and ideas.
For example, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset was a novelty for virtual travel experiences, such as the aerial views provided by a virtual hot-air balloon ride:
Another popular object was ‘ButtonTuner’, the musical cushion, which triggered an animated session of singing along to ‘Singing in the Rain’:
All the residents and the care staff too, enjoyed the series of co-produced interactive books, and were able to read the stories and hear the tales of different people’s life experiences, even those from other care homes:
Exploring the use of pre-decimal currency in one of the homes caring for people with dementia was successful too. After giving out purses full of threepenny coins to the residents, we explained that just for fun, the ‘thrupenny bits’ could be exchanged for a drink and cake of their choice:
On the party menus, tea and cake cost 6d, the same price as in 1942. There was some mental arithmetic recalled in the counting, and whole Battenbergs were even exchanged for pooled sums of money!
Alongside the reminiscing of tea and cakes shared in the past and the stories evoked, it was very poignant to observe the residents’ responses to the coins, for a group of people who no longer have access to, or need to use cash in their current circumstances. Some said they were so pleased to have something to give to their grandchildren when the family next visited, comments perhaps linked to years of giving coins as pocket money. Others were fascinated by the thrupenny pieces themselves, holding them, playing with them, seeming to dwell on the tactile experience of the familiar weight, feel and sound of the coins in their hands, secured with the satisfying snap of the purse clip. It seemed as if the purses and the pre-decimal tokens became a new acquisition, all the more coveted and treasured in an environment where people have few possessions, with little practical need for material objects. The game of exchanging old money for tea party treats (while residents were able to keep both at the end of the afternoon) was, in the words of one humorous resident: ‘not devious, just crafty’!
Recently we have been exploring the theme of money with a group of care home residents who are suffering from the advanced stages of dementia.
With Gill Roberts from Alive! Activities, a collection of pre-decimal coins have provided a tangible set of tokens around which the residents have been able to reminisce. Stories have emerged about how much you used to be able to buy with a ‘thrupenny bit’ or a sixpence, and what you might have chosen to spend your pocket money on as a child. (Favourites included toffee apples, ice-cream, and a ride on the neighbour’s bicycle). The subject of wages also evoked familiar memories about saving or spending, about the price of bread and the cost of a weekly shop.
As a team, we have been interested in the capacity of money to provide the individual with a certain agency, where both cash and independence are often absent in the care home environment. Equally, I have been struck by the commonality of earning, using and exchanging money as a singularly unifying experience. While the presence or absence of money in our lives is usually divisive, the physical sensation of coins in our hands, given or received in exchange for goods or services, is instantly recognisable and communal. Money is a bond after all.
The residents also seemed to enjoy the money-themed music, singing along with Bing Crosby to ‘Pennies from Heaven’, with Tommy Steele for ‘We’re in the Money’ and accompanying Doris Day on ‘Three coins in the fountain’.
During our next visit we will be hosting a tea party and providing the residents with purses of threepenny coins, each of which they will be able to exchange for a choice of tasty treats on a pre-decimalised tea-time menu. I’m intrigued to find out what a cup of tea used to cost in 1942!
The first series of art workshops, where we have been working with residents from a care home to create new images and objects, each capturing a significant memory, seem to have been very much enjoyed by the participants.
Some of the paintings from the early sessions have been framed and shown at the recent Connected Communities conference in Cardiff.
One resident has a fond and vivid memory of periwinkle flowers which grew profusely in her childhood garden, and so it was this enduring image that she chose to reproduce in both watercolour (above) and scribe into the surface of casting wax (below). The wax was a wholly new material to her, but she was keen to experiment and interested to hear that it could be cast into bronze, by making a rubber mould from her original work.
When I showed D the resulting bronze cast of her artwork, she was visibly delighted, and amazed that she could have produced something that looked, in her words, ‘so expensive’. In bronze, the cherished memory now has a permanence that will last beyond the fleeting moment of remembering. As I was leaving, D made a comment that seemed to support the purpose of the entire project:
‘It’s a good idea this [project], you tell them that. It’s really got me thinking. The trouble is you get so old and you think you’ve forgotten everything, all these things – but you haven’t. The memories just need fishing out.’
Hopefully as a team, through these art workshops and the many other creative approaches, we can continue to assist the residents in ‘fishing out’ their memories, which may otherwise have drifted away.
In the book, Art as Therapy, the authors Alain de Botton and John Armstrong, go some way to echoing D’s comment:
‘We’re bad at remembering things. Our minds are troublingly liable to lose important information, of both a factual and a sensory kind. […] Art helps us to accomplish a task that is of central importance in our lives: to hold on to things we love when they are gone.’
The writers also point out that: ‘Art can be a tool, and we need to focus more clearly on what kind of tool it is – and what good it can do for us’.
The collection of fragmented objects (below) have proved extremely useful and fascinating as a set of tools for evoking memories and stories, functioning as a kind of 3D collage, where each artefact recalls something different for each individual:
In the image above, there are two RFID tags, on either side of the group of objects, and as a team, we are considering methods by which these ‘art tools’ or objects, could be augmented using near-field communication technology, in order to add a layer of story content to each item.
By exploring these digital technology options, we are, to a certain extent, seeking to ‘add value’ to some of the objects with which we are working. This has inevitably led to broader discussions about value, both the inherent and tangible value of collectable family heirlooms for example, as well as the sentimental value often attached to more personal possessions and the memories associated with them.
While prevailing concepts of the word value tend to centre around money and finance, I began to think about the significant absence of currency in the care home environment. Cash is not usually required, as the residents have nothing to spend it on in their immediate everyday surroundings, and cannot easily go out into the community without prior arrangement and support. The lack of monetary exchanges that are so integral to our daily social encounters for the greater part of our lives, are suddenly missing. Paradoxically however, the high and rising cost of care provision needs an increasing volume of financial investment to sustain it.
With money comes agency and choice, and a level of empowerment and confidence widely recognized as important for any individual. Equally, art has been identified as having a capacity for agency in a book called Winter Fires: Art and agency in old age, producedby the London Art in Health Forum and the Baring Foundation:
‘Children and young people want to be thought older than they are because with adulthood comes agency – the ability to act autonomously in the world, to make our own decisions, to pursue our desires, to write our own story. And it is the loss of agency, above all through mental incapacity, that is most feared as old age advances…..
But a capacity to create…is in all human beings, including those who do nothing to develop it after primary school. Art is a capacity for agency that….can flourish, indeed, in old age and help preserve individuality and autonomy to the very end.’
As a result of both art and money being identified means of increasing autonomy, this week I will be facilitating a type of coin-making workshop with the residents from another of the care homes, before we begin to experiment with these unique objects of value in some system of exchange, a kind of micro-currency within the care home environment.
Much like D’s wax cast into bronze, the residents can start by drawing a significant memory or symbol of something important to them, into the surface of a wax hexagonal shape. The smallest ‘coin blank’ starts at similar size to the 5 pence piece, while a much larger hexagon is available for more short-sighted participants or those with dexterity issues.
Next month, in a care home where the majority of residents are suffering from the advanced stages of dementia, we will also begin experimenting with pre-decimal money, in the form of the ‘thrupenny bit’ or threepenny coin. Tim Lloyd-Yeates, Director of Alive! Activities reminded the team that in the midst of memory-loss, the strongest recurring memories are those which we have experienced between the ages of 10 and 30 years old. For most of the care home residents, this would mean vivid recollections of using pre-decimal money.
Alongside these ideas of introducing a micro-currency into the care home environment, this Radio 4 programme explored a really interesting form of alternative currency, applied to care of the elderly in Japan:
The programme summary raises some crucial questions:
The UK, like many countries, faces the problems of an increasingly ageing society. The number of people aged 65 and over is projected to rise by 23% from 10.3 million in 2010 to 16.9 million by 2035. How can we provide and pay for their care?
Japan is at the forefront of the ageing crisis, with the highest proportion of elderly citizens in the world. By 2030, almost a third of the population will be 65 or older. At the same time the overall population is shrinking, leaving fewer young working people to shoulder the burden of paying for care for the elderly.
One creative response to this challenge at local level has been a cash-less system of time-banking. Under the fureai kippu system, individuals donate time to looking after the elderly, and earn credits which they can – in theory at least – “cash in” later for their own care, or transfer to elderly relatives in other parts of the country.
Could something similar work here, or do we have very different attitudes to community and volunteering? Who would benefit from such a cash-less scheme, and who might lose out? Could it be scaled up to meet the escalating needs of a growing elderly population?
Ultimately, whether it is time or money, art objects or memories that we will be exchanging in the care home of the future, new ways of thinking about ageing are vital now, in addition to providing a sustainable and personalised means of support for everyone.
The chance to work closely with artist and art workshop leader, Deborah Feiler, from Alive! Activities was a great opportunity to learn more about the potential of creative processes to elicit memories and personal stories from residents in a care home setting.
Starting with a series of three workshop sessions, Deborah and I were helpfully given a research question to frame our creative explorations with the residents: Can older people make objects which are meaningful to them? Some other questions we also hoped to consider included: Does a story have to be told with words? Can art express a memory? Can a collection of objects work together to express a memory? How can the creative process contribute to a better understanding of the individual, in a care home setting?
At a recent conference, I was intrigued to hear about a form entitled This Is Me, which aims to ‘help health and social care professionals build a better understanding of who the person really is’, when a person is suffering from dementia and about to enter a new care home. I decided to download a copy from the Alzheimer’s Society’s website, and try responding to it myself:
It was very difficult to summarise my identity and life history in four lines or less and I am only 38. I can only imagine how much more challenging and upsetting this task becomes when you are over 70, 80 or 90 years old, and are perhaps struggling to recall some of the more significant moments or events. Personally, even for me, it was a strangely emotive experience to try and reduce myself to a sentence or two, or a list of points at best. I felt frustrated and humiliated that a single piece of paper should represent the complexity of any human being, and be handed over to care staff with the title of the form declaring ‘This Is Me’. This is not me – I am not a printed sheet of A4. I was also at a loss to know how I should respond (despite the lengthy Guidance Notes provided) to such open-ended statements like ‘I would like you to know…’ (4 lines) and worried about providing the ‘correct’ information under each section. The idea of completing this form, even with a trusted friend or family member to assist, must be very distressing for new residents on the move at a confusing and challenging stage of life.
While visiting relatives in London, I took the opportunity to pop in to the Victoria and Albert Museum, to see this fascinating display about memory techniques.
‘In the age of the internet we rarely rely on the skill of remembering, but systems to assist memory were once essential. One of the oldest is the Memory Palace, which requires picturing a familiar building, then placing vivid images within it. When you imagine walking through the building, the images trigger the facts you want to recall. The technique comes from an ancient Greek story about a banqueting hall that collapsed, crushing the guests beyond recognition. The poet Simonides was able to identify each guest by mentally walking around the table and visualizing them.
Cicero and Quintilian described the Memory Palace in their treatises on rhetoric, which were influential in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. In the 19th century, when education involved rote-learning facts and figures, different memorising systems evolved and were promoted through lectures, manuals and children’s card games.
But Simonides’ simple and personal technique still appeals. For a mnemonic setting we might use, rather than a banqueting hall, our home, a place characterized by strong visual, sensual and emotional recollections. This display explores the art of remembering, as well as the idea of home as a Memory Palace.’
The journey to Oxford, for the Creative Dementia Arts Network conference, started in an appropriately creative way. On board the 08.55 from Didcot, I discovered a Pass It On book, left for the ‘next person’ to find, read and give away. I had heard much about this delightful exchange, known as a Book Swap, but this was the first time I’d had the good fortune to stumble upon such serendipitous gift.
There was also a serendipity to be found in many of the stories, research and experiences of dementia that were recounted at the Creative Dementia Arts Network conference, throughout the day in Oxford. Continue reading →