Exploring identity through objects and images

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:

This is Me form edited

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.

Attempting this task myself, really made me sympathise even more with the difficulties faced by dementia sufferers, their families and carers, as well as nursing homes and charities, particularly where effective communication is concerned. Knowing the individual seems to me, crucial to providing adequate care support, but the method by which you are able to get to know the person is a separate and on-going challenge.

I wondered if my anxiety about getting the answers ‘wrong’ on This Is Me, was partly to do with the permanency of writing things down, and the limitation of language, in conveying a person’s identity.

What would happen if each This Is Me responder was able to record a conversation, or series of conversations, instead of using written text? Or select symbolic objects and images in answer to these questions, in place of words? I thought about the novel Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf, where the reader gains insight into Jacob’s character, despite his physical absence, through a detailed description of his home and personal effects:

Jacob’s room had a round table and two low chairs. There were yellow flags in a jar on the mantelpiece; a photograph of his mother; cards from societies with little raised crescents, coats of arms, and initials; notes and pipes; on the table lay paper ruled with a red margin – an essay, no doubt – ‘Does History consist of the Biographies of Great Men?’ There were books enough; […] Lives of the Duke of Wellington, for example; Spinoza; the works of Dickens’; the Faëry Queen; a Greek dictionary with the petals of poppies pressed to silk between the pages; all the Elizabethans. His slippers were incredibly shabby, like boats burnt to the water’s rim. Then there were photographs from the Greeks, and a mezzotint from Sir Joshua – all very English. The works of Jane Austen, too, in deference, perhaps, to some one else’s standard. Carlyle was a prize. There were books upon the Italian painters of the Renaissance, a Manual of the Diseases of the Horse, and all the usual text-books. Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there.

Much like the TV programme Through the Keyhole, and similar to a historian’s role in accurately determining the past, it is often objects and images which become our sole recourse to understanding an individual, their motivations and character, even in their absence.

Consequently, I also tried to answer the This Is Me form, using only photographs in the first instance, and then objects. The images I selected are all from my childhood, while this is generally perceived to be a significant and formative stage of development, supposedly laying down the foundations of a person’s character. It is also a time of life that seems to remain more vividly in the memory, and a time of life that I would really enjoy recalling – if I could – in years to come.

 Family group

HH Dads birthday

HH beach bars Exploring rock pools

Exploring riverbank

Swings with grandma

HH Burrows Mt

Mt Rainier

Sand dunes with Lassie

Art instruments

Cup of tea

Wedding marriage

Pile of books

Flip flops

Wedding shoes

Basketball shoes


Cycle shoes

Hiking boots