There's an Alzheimer's Society Memory Café at a Housing Trust in north London. Everyone who attends is living with dementia, to varying degrees. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with the regulars to facilitate conversation using my Many Happy Returns 40s and 50s Chatterbox cards.
Including one family carer and four Housing Trust staff members, there were about 18 of us in the room, sitting around at small tables with oilskin cloths, on each was a small glass vase with a single bright yellow fabric chrysanthemum. The colour of hope, I thought wistfully.
Everyone was wearing a badge and as always, as I went around the room so that we could all introduce ourselves, I noted unusual names written on them – most of those present were local, but a few had arrived here from the Commonwealth or as refugees from war. I knew that meant we would hear some intriguing stories.
The room was quiet and expectant. We started, as so often, tentatively sharing memories of favourite toys from childhood. Descriptions of dolls and doll's houses, of dolls' prams and dressing up family pets to wheel around in them, of cap pistols and Painting by Numbers, these soon became stories of constantly being sent outside regardless of the season, (even when unwell) of running around unsupervised, of climbing trees, of gang games, and in winter, of mucking about in the (helpfully warm) local tube stations.
As always, they described lives of happy, unfettered freedom hardly known by children today despite, for most, their relative poverty. One man who said his family could afford no toys at all, described his pet Collie, 'Sailor', "rather an odd name for a dog I suppose!" he laughed,"I trained him and he was at my side all the time. he would do that thing that Collies do, crouching down to listen. He was really clever." A Greek lady whose language has reached that stage where her words sound quite feasible but are nonetheless, challenging to understand – or even hear, spoke with poignancy and pleasure about playing with her sisters in the sunshine on her local island beach.
Then I spread the 52 cards arbitrarily around the tables and left the group pretty much to it. As always, the volume in the room rose dramatically as they started to reveal their lives to one another, prompted by the subjects, pictures and information on the cards. Their memories now spread across the landscape of their lives, their relationships, jobs, children and grandchildren.
And as always, the other volunteers expressed astonishment at the instant connection the cards prompted, the enjoyment and pleasure they observed, the sheer amount of conversation and animation. And as always, the participants commented on the cards and how well they prompted meaningful memories. And like all good parties, people didn't really want to stop sharing and lingered on beyond the finish time to continue chatting.
And as always, as I trudged through the January cold back to the bus stop, I felt a deep sense of privilege and wonderment to be able to bear witness to their hidden treasure troves of life experience and history.