Ed Gillett is Communications & PR Manager at the BGS. In this blog, he looks at a new project placing writers ad other artists on creative residencies within care homes.
Think of poets, artists and writers working with care homes, and you might initially think of arts-based therapy and other activities for residents Where The Heart Is, a recent arts-based programme run by Age Concern, has taken a different approach, placing artists from various disciplines within care homes, and inviting them to create work inspired by their experiences.
In 2013, the poet Sarah Hesketh spent 20 weeks visiting Lady Elsie Finney House, a care home focusing on end-of-life care. This culminated in the publication of a poetry collection entitled The Hard Word Box, and an exhibition at the Free Word Centre in London, running until the end of June 2015. Other artists in the programme created films, paintings, photographs and choreography from their respective placements; their work is displayed as part of the exhibition as well.
Reading the poems, I’m struck by Sarah’s ability to render the complexities of living with advanced dementia without attempting to reconcile their contradictions: this is an unsettling, upsetting, but also oddly life-affirming piece of work. The poems resonate with a powerful and very human sense of ambiguity and multiplicity. Often this manifests in sombre and uneasy imagery:
Into the White
They say the colour of finally is
red. The dinner plates, the walls, the chairs
are all saying: look! you live by emergency.
Everything is so
balled heart. Too much muscle
in the sound of thinking.
All we want is to be allowed
to be gone. To fall from this dark like
brushed white chalk.
At other times, the disinhibited behaviour often associated with dementia breaks through in unexpectedly colourful fashion:
Phyllis’ Instructions for Sex
All women really need
is a thing they can
pull out sometimes
and then fold it away quiet
when they’re done.
Discussing her time at Lady Elsie Finney House, Sarah underlines some of the complexities around engaging with the residents:
“The most overwhelming thing I realised was that absolutely everyone was different. Not only in terms of their personalities, but in how the dementia affected them. There wasn’t one person with an identical set of symptoms or conditions, and I wanted the writing to reflect that individual nature.
“This was really just a bunch of people who need help with certain aspects of their lives: they all might happen to have a label put on them, but it doesn’t actually link them in any way. I was trying to keep that complexity in it, to show that other people, or these people in other circumstances, might react very differently.
None of the people I spoke to realised they were in a care home. They thought they were in hospital, or at the doctor’s, and that they’d be going home when they got better; some thought they were in school. They all knew they were in some kind of institutional setting, but nobody thought it was a care home.
That sense of dislocation and uncertainty is prevalent throughout The Hard Word Box. Perhaps the most arresting piece in the collection is a pair of poems entitled “Left Brain” and “Right Brain”. Each contains half of a text, split vertically down the middle and displayed on opposite walls of the Free Word Centre.
In reading them, you are forced to turn your head back & forth repeatedly, trying hopelessly to thread the ruptured meaning back together. The dizzying, unsteady feeling this process creates is a powerful approximation of dementia’s fracturing effect on language.
I ask Sarah what the most challenging aspect of the project was for her:
“I think the one thing I wish I’d been able to do more was bring through how fun the experience was, and how funny the residents were at times. One of the residents in particular was so funny and so charming: he would speak in this really thick Preston accent: “Never been a fighter. Ah’ve done some fightin’, never been a fighter”.
“But I couldn’t find a way to bring that through: it’s hard to do humour on the page, and it felt like it needed to be more serious than that, in case it glossed over the issues involved or infantilised the people I was speaking about”
I’m interested in this reply, not least because in her blog for The Poetry School, Sarah outlines a very different view of her placement:
“The older people that I would be meeting would be nearing the end of their lives, often suffering from very poor physical health. They might not be able to recognise me from one hour to another, never mind week to week, and so building relationships would be very hard.
We were advised to make sure we worked with a number of individuals, as it was quite likely that one or more of the residents would die during the duration of the project. There is no cure for dementia, least of all poetry, and this was not going to be a ‘fun gig’ in any conventional sense of those words.”
I think this encapsulates the fascinating paradoxes thrown up by The Hard Word Box, and the other work created as part of Where The Heart Is. In addressing a subject as difficult and unforgiving as dementia, both artist and audience are at the mercy of a series of contradictions: the process is hard, upsetting and irreversible, and yet opens up opportunities for moments of strange illumination and unexpected beauty.
Where The Heart runs at the Free Word Centre until 24 June.
Sarah Hesketh will be joined by Jennifer Essex (choreographer) and David Clegg (artist and Director of the Trebus Project) for a discussion chaired by Mark Butler, Director of Development at the Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University, about their experiences during the project. The discussion will take place on Tuesday 9 June at 6.45pm, free entry.
Image credit: Caroline Christie