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Monday 18 April 2011

The Value of Childhood Reminiscences

As all members of the National Trust will know from the recent issue of the members' magazine, there is a poetry competition running until the 31st March. Called 'Landlines', the competition has two categories: 'under 16' and 'over 16'. The judge is the well known poet Ian McMillan (who, amongst other things, is the Humberside Police's Beat Poet.) Introducing the competition, McMillan reflects on how the great outdoors, landscape, weather, buildings and places can all be strong images we carry in our memory for years to come. 

I know this for a fact, as I carry fond and vivid recollections of my teenage years in Kent spent in the buildings and grounds of great houses such as Knole (the setting for Virginia Woolf's novel,Orlando), Sissinghurst Castle (home to the writer Vita Sackville West), Winston Churchill's home at Chartwell, Down House (where Charles Darwin lived and wrote his On the Origin of Species), and Quebec House (childhood home of General James Wolfe). That these historic houses and grounds, along with their eminent owners, left a lasting mark on my formative years is beyond question, as even today I recognise parts of my actions, thoughts, words or possessions as relating to those early experiences.

Early memories play an increasingly important role as we get older. They are the first memories we have, and those of a greater age than I will often relate more to those early years than to recent events. I am sure that we all have the experience of aged relatives relating stories of their younger years for the thousandth time as though they were telling them afresh.

The same memories can be a source of great value when it comes to dealing with someone with early dementia. For such people, the present can often be bewildering, strange and even frightening. The usual platitudes of reassurance are of little value and quickly forgotten, and the person is left fearful, distressed and mentally alone in a perplexing modern world. Such people will often still respond in a positive and knowledgeable manner to stimuli which provoke images from their childhood and early adult years, and it is to these memories that family members and other carers should be looking in an effort to satisfactorily communicate with their loved ones. The present means very little to them. However, pictures of familiar places, houses, countryside and people will often trigger deep-seated memories which will bring some meaningful actions or conversations.

As an example, I can remember the case of a gentleman who lived in a residential home. He had dementia, was relatively immobile and was quite isolated within the home. One day a care assistant started playing records of dance music from the 1920s. To everyone's surprise, the man got out of his chair and accompanied the care assistant in a faultless waltz around the day room. Unbeknown to his carers, he had won medals for ballroom dancing in his twenties and the playing of the records had unleashed those memories.

So, if you find yourself looking after, or trying to relate to, someone with dementia, forget about the present and look to the past. The trick is to discover the background of the person you are dealing with; you may be in for some pleasant surprises.

First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Friday 11th March 2011

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