Dementia at Christmas
Many years ago I worked for a community arts association and we made regular visits to the dementia ward in the big hospital that dominated the town; my friend Janet would take her guitar and I’d write words on my flipchart, which has always been my weapon of choice for creative sessions, and we’d make tiny, fragmentary songs from memories that were shattered like dropped plates. One week a man who had been unresponsive and silent throughout each session grabbed a scarf from a dancer who was moving round the ward to Janet’s music. He wrapped the scarf around his head and, in a voice like Les Dawson’s, said ‘I look like me mam’, and of course that line formed the refrain of the song we wrote.
For that moment that man had an instant of clarity, a memory of a long-dead mam, a vision of her face, an inkling of the way she looked when she wore her headscarf. And it didn’t matter that he never spoke again and never joined in; at that interface of time and forgetting he was a person who made art, who made us laugh, who made us think.
That’s what Jackie Kay’s wonderful poem on this week’s Verb does; it rescues someone from the closed drawer of memory loss and celebrates their language, their creativity, their humanity. It gives a speaker back their voice and it reminds us that words are slippery fish that sometimes we catch and put in the keep net, and that sometimes slip away and swim to places we can’t find them. Art and song and words and movement are vital components in the lives of people with dementia, just as they are for all of us, and I for one would like to see a huge increase in the amount of money provided for creative work with people with memory loss. Everyone is creative, Jackie Kay’s poem tells us; everyone can have worth, everyone can add to the sum of what we know, and everyone can make us laugh. I look like me mam and all, when I put a headscarf on.
Jackie Kay MBE was born and brought up in Scotland. She has published five collections of poetry for adults (The Adoption Papers won the Forward Prize, a Saltire Award and a Scottish Arts Council Book Award) and several for children.