In May 2017, a new National Memory Day will launch as part of Dementia Awareness Week. Managed by Literature Works, a literary charity headed up by Tracey Guiry, whose own mother has dementia. The day is designed to celebrate the power of memory and challenges that living with memory loss can bring, not only for the individual but also their wider circle of family and friends. We spoke to Tracey recently, about her hopes for the day and her own personal experiences of dementia too
We are obviously passionate about anything that seeks to help and support those for whom memory loss is a daily reality. The Daily Sparkles, for instance, provide a real sense of comfort and familiarity that can be all too absent for people living with dementia, and those moments when someone locked in their own mind is able to share happy memories from their past, or recall a positive event are very special. And we need more of these.
Which is why National Memory Day is such an important step forward. With support from the likes of Andrew Motion and Angela Rippon, National Memory Day will raise money to help open more Memory Cafés across the UK, including dedicated veterans’ cafes, as well as offering a year-round programme of talks and workshops with poets and writers and running a writing competition for members of the public to write a poem or short story about their own personal experiences with dementia and memory loss. “We would like to raise the profile of the powerful and positive impact that the written word,” says CEO Tracey Guiry. “Whether reciting or writing poetry, telling, writing or reading stories aloud can have on people living with memory loss. Poetry in particular can have an enormously beneficial impact on people’s lives in any circumstances, but because many people learned poetry when they were younger, this form does seem to remain long after other memories are lost.”
Why do you think poetry - and literature in general - has such a capacity for sparking memory?
Poetry in particular has the ability to contain a vast amount of emotional power in what might only be, on the outside of it, ten or twenty lines of text. These few lines can carry a whole universe of meaning - symbolic, lyrical, mythical and any other associated meanings - and this meaning is often understood by the reader in a totally personal way. We all know of poems which are well known, but which carry precisely personal associations. Poetry also has a rhythm to it, an internal ‘beat’, as well as rhyming words which help the reader to lodge the words deeply into memory, and somehow this rhythm is able to find the connections which release these memories once again.
What poems have been important to you and your mother?
I believe my Mother must have learnt The Listeners at school when she was about 10 or 12 years old, and the learning of that poem triggered in her young mind the memory of her father walking down the stairs carrying her brother. It was the image of the horse and the stairs which stayed with her, and when we recited it again, over 70 years later, those same memories were triggered again. Poetry and literature has the power to be very personal even when it is aiming to have a very general meaning - and it’s this unique ability to bring back those personal and specific memories which make poetry such a great bridge back to the experiences people once felt.
What was the difference you saw in your mother after reading her poems from her school days?
Mum had a real smile on her face and in her eyes and she told me new stories about her youth. I had never heard the story of her father carrying her brother down the stairs before, though I think my elder sister knew of it years ago. It was a story which we hadn’t passed around amongst ourselves, and there are so many memories, the collective family memories if you like, which can get lost unless you air them now and again. Mum has held on to her story of the fate of her favourite horse and she still enjoys telling it – it animates her when people come to visit as she retains the impulse to talk, but has lost the ability to converse. This gives her some power back, as people can listen and we can see how much Mum enjoys communicating, especially with her family.
You talk about 'bridges back' to a person - can you explain a little more about that?
I’m not sure if it’s just me, but when Mum remembers something, you can see it light up in her eyes, and I see these ‘flashes’ of remembered life as if they are a torchlight which lights up a path back to her. Memory loss can feel like an impenetrable barrier, but in these flashes I can imagine that there is a delicate connection between us, which has lit up a pathway for me across that barrier and allows me to walk alongside her for a while. Where it might not be possible to get the whole of your loved one back there are always pathways, lanes, roads and bridges to be found which can link people over quite difficult or seemingly impossible terrain.
How does reminiscence help family and friends communicate better?
Reminiscence keeps the family memories alive and creates the space where the family can remember good times and as a consequence they feel a tiny bit more positive about the situation they are thrown into when dementia or Alzheimer’s strikes. This is a condition which the whole family suffer from, our whole family is affected by dementia, and there is often a feeling of powerlessness which comes with being on the outside of the primary care ‘net’. The ability to re-live and re-enjoy a shared experience, even one that was traumatic in its origin, can be a golden thread back to a loved-one, and for a few minutes you can forget there are any barriers. The sense of sharing, and the empathy and understanding that shared and communal feeling promotes, are great gifts when much of this condition is quite hard.