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
Recently, we held a group session with residents that focused on the theme of favourite walks. For some of the older people we are working with, access to the outdoors represents a physical challenge or a rare treat, while the residents of this particular assisted living location generally enjoy a much greater level of independence and freedom to go outside.
The participants in this lively group discussion came prepared with a significant walk in mind from any point in their lives, and seemed to relish sharing their experiences about a walk, or pattern of walks, that had memorable meaning. One gentleman remembered the familiarity of his walk to infant school, made suddenly dramatic one day in 1927, when a bi-plane landed in a field next to the primary school. This was the first aeroplane he had ever seen. One lady took the opportunity to advertise a sponsored walk she had planned for the very next day, to raise money in aid of the resident’s activity fund. She was hoping to make two circuits around the building where the group live, but promised that if she could get a skateboard, she would be able to make it three! There were reminiscences about walks in Blaise Castle and the Hamlet, that seemed ‘like walking in a fairyland’, while others fondly recalled walks with a husband or wife amongst snowdrops or bluebells in the Springtime. For another lady, walking on land was significant in itself, as she and her family had lived on board a boat and her daughter had learnt to walk while they were at sea.
One of the outcomes of this session, exploring favourite walks and nearby locations, was the desire to revisit some of these places in real life, in order to re-experience them and have the chance of uncovering more distant memories. Adopting the more curatorial approach on offer (see post re TopoTiles), the group decided that they would enjoy visiting the MShed, a local museum about Bristol, its places, people and their stories, which effectively seemed to represent several of the locations that they had been discussing.
As a result, one blustery cold morning, we gathered into a minibus and travelled to Bristol’s harbourside to explore the MShed, and the many intriguing objects on display there.
In addition to the curated exhibitions that stretched across three floors of the museum and were complemented by wintery harbourside views, the residents particularly enjoyed a guided tour of the museum’s stores, known as the LShed.
Behind-the-scenes, in a dimly-lit warehouse, these uncurated and large-scale artefacts seemed all the more enticing somehow, stacked on shelving, without labels or glass cases, or peeking out from underneath plastic sheeting and behind cupboard doors.
In this unordered space, it felt as if there was more to discover in a serendipitous way, and this led to a greater number of memories being evoked for the residents, in response to the historic objects they observed among the aisles of storage.
The spontaneous discovery and revelation of items within the LShed collections seemed to vividly reflect the way in which we store our memories, as well as the manner in which we tend to recall them. Jumbled and disorderly, sometimes hidden from view, our past is usually recollected in a non-linear fashion, leaping from one event to another, bounding across years and back again.
The visit to the MShed and LShed, and the stories which the day evoked, were captured through a series of photographic images and sound recordings. Initially, the residents have chosen to use this material in a temporary exhibition in one of the communal living areas at their home:
Five images were selected from the museum visit, with accompanying sound recordings that related to the objects in the photos.
Using three push-button sound systems already available in the foyer, we recorded short excerpts of narrative, into each of the three units:
Here is an example, featuring one of the LShed mangles:
The residents now have further plans to share different aspects of their museum visit, including a slideshow for friends and neighbours (to be held later this month) and the suggestion of a ‘virtual museum’ to be installed at the home. This would involve using some of the images of the objects in store, within the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, so that those residents who are physically unable to travel to the museum itself, might be able to enjoy a similar, serendipitous discovery of the LShed and reminisce around the artefacts for themselves.
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’!
As a team I admit that we joked about our up and coming gig in a village hall in the depths of Gloucestershire – we’d been advised to bring all our own kit so arrived with a projector and screen as well as speakers to ensure we could introduce some of our co-researchers to the audience.
We’d been invited to participate in a regional University of the Third Age (U3A) conference and as I’d worked with U3A members on a previous research project I knew they’d be a lively and engaged audience for our work. I wanted to pursue with them whether some of their members might be interested in being involved as potential volunteers to test our technologies in more care home settings.
We quickly realised that this audience would be our most engaged and interested yet! I kicked off the presentation talking about objects and memories and in particular raised the idea of ‘de-cluttering’ and the many ethical and practical issues that can arise in the process of moving from ‘home’ to ‘a home’ or ‘the home’. As I spoke I sensed the audience were itching to comment so opened up the presentation to questions and comments much sooner than I’d planned. Our audience had many interesting things to contribute from personal experiences of having to clear relatives houses following death to professional experiences of working in auction houses and care home settings. It felt as if we could have talked all day about the issues that were being raised however Lucy and Barney (Stand + Stare) and Pete still had to speak so we were forced to close down this discussion. I was keen to reiterate our desire to work with them to enhance the scalability and sustainability of the project.
Lucy and Barney outlined our main prototype ideas and then talked in detail about the interactive book idea that they are co-designing with residents in our care home settings. They demonstrated some of the visual recognition software that they are using and talked about both individual book projects and the fantastic group book project that was instigated by one of our residents, a gentleman at BWC. Again it was obvious that the audience were itching to comment and ask questions and again lively debate ensued, including discussion about how the process is managed, the importance of working with care staff and the applicability of the idea more broadly outside of care home settings.
Pete then took to the stage, further stimulating our fantastic audience using metaphors for our design ideas including ‘genies in bottles’ and mind reading magic. Again rather than turning the audience off with talk of the use of virtual reality and harmonic resonance his presentation created even more of a buzz and again much debate ensued. Some were concerned about how older people might be able to use the technologies Pete talked about in terms of physical difficulties as well as inexperience with technologies. Pete talked about the need to ensure that there are various ‘entry points’ for different users and the need for personalisation of the device and the prompts depending on the particular needs of individual older people.
We ran over and we’re sorry that this meant there was less time for our audience to enjoy coffee, tea and biscuits. However conversation and discussion continued in the coffee break and many audience members approached us to offer help, support and further ideas.
Two learning points stand out from this for me:
U3A is a great organisation – pioneering new, self organising forms of learning and new ways for older (mostly professional) people to be involved in society in meaningful ways after they have retired.
Don’t make assumptions about audiences and the kind of reaction/understanding you might get from them – the openness to new ideas at this event put many more ‘academic’ audiences to shame.
I have just attended the 2014 International Autobiography Conference in Stockholm, where I presented a paper on the life storytelling and life writing strategies of 3 of our elder co-researchers in the project, focusing on the interplay between orality and writing and their different conceptions of time and truth, particularly where play challenges conventional chronology in the creation of stories that remain personally true.
One of our co-researchers uses writing as a means to rehearse or anchor his oral accounts as accurately as he can, departing from the written word when he is confident his memory will yield the essential details in their proper order, allowing him to bring in asides and reflections to enrich his account.
The second narrator deliberately plays with her life’s timeline, taking events that are all true for her and mixing their order in the creation of a new tale that allows her to reflect and comment on her experiences in a new way.
The third co-researcher creates children’s stories, following a tradition she started several years ago writing postscripts from a beloved pet bird to entertain an adult sister in long-term care and, by extension, the other sisters caring for her. Her protagonist, a spider, must learn not only to face, but also actively seek out new challenges and figure out his place in the world. Her stories allow her to reflect and comment on life as she has lived it so far with a view to where she would like to go in the future.
Our group was small because there were 5 simultaneous panels, but discussion was lively and I was pleased that my paper, grounded in our project, featured the work of unpublished authors. Autobiography as life writing (inscribing?) needs to work more closely with oral history in order to appreciate the multiplicity of ways extraordinary everyday stories are told. Likewise, oral history might benefit from some of autobiography’s approaches to literature-as-life-history. As a folklorist, being a child of the issue that — as ballad scholar Tristram P. Coffin is famously credited with saying — ” Anthropology got off English” I keep firm hold of the hands of both my reluctant and slightly abashed parents and see no shame in my intellectual lineage. Textual studies and ethnography can enrich each other.
From the conference In particular, I was struck by Andrew Miller’s (Flinders University, Australia) presentation on autoethnography in digital storytelling and wondered if there was scope in a future direction of the project for Intergenerational work between seniors and youth that could create sites of digital life storytelling, where young people could mediate the technology as needed but also listen to and help put together elders’ stories and perhaps even vice versa, if an interface could be devised that was accessible for people with fine motor problems and sight issues. While young and old alike could also be authors in solitude, the project has clearly shown that stories have their greatest power in shared contexts. Perhaps this is one area where the project’s emphasis on scalable interactive books could really shine, in the development of elder-centred tools for storytelling.
Likewise, a paper by Hertha D. Sweet Wong (Berkeley) on the artist books of Julie Chen, beautiful hand-crafted and deliberately non-digitally interactive books that compel the reader to confront narratives about our relationship to the passage of time, got me thinking about whether the technology underpinning the interactive books and whether future iterations could be published combining digital and essentially mechanical interaction (think of the difference between a video or an e book and a fold out pop up book or one with “secrets” that must be physically unlocked in reading). On the face of it, my feeling is yes, since this conference has brought up a question we asked ourselves early in the project: “What about writing as well as audio? What about texts-as-artefacts as well as objects-as-texts?”
Perhaps as with many stories, we will find we end at the beginning, wiser for the journey and ready to go in a new direction.
We took our portable care home installation down to the M Shed today for the Celebrating Age festival, organised by Age UK Bristol. Our recent work was displayed in the installation and we had a few demos, including the Oculus Rift VR demo, for people to try out. We had some great conversations over the day with all of the visitors and got some great feedback on our projects.
The Tangible Memories team have been busy over the summer consolidating our learning so far. This has involved writing papers, attending conferences and continuing to think about and work on our co-design process with older people. We’re about to begin an exciting phase of turning prototypes into working designs as well as developing our ideas for our end of project conference to be held in Bristol on February 25th and 26th, 2015.
Seana and Helen presented their paper, ‘Is that Thing Still on?: Storytelling, the Stuff of creativity and the curation of self in everyday life among elderly extra care home residents in Bristol’ at the Oxford Ethnography and Education.
Pete and Ki have been working on two papers for computer science/ HCI conferences including CHI2015.
Alive! activities have also been busy over the summer – commissioning an evaluation of their work and taking on new members of staff as they expand. They were also shortlisted for the Tech for Good awards in the category of Digital Health.
So the team are now looking forward to showing our installation at the Bristol Celebrating Age Festival on September 27th at the MShed and to our Autumn tea parties to be held in all our partner care homes in October. Also look out for our public event as part of the ESRC Thinking futures Festival entitled, ‘Care homes of the Future’ – further details to follow shortly.
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.