Summer seems to have passed by so quickly this year. The recollection of my attendance at the three Dementia and Imagination conferences, delivered as part of the AHRC Connected Communities sharing events held in June and July, at first seems like a vague and distant memory.  Thankfully looking through my photographic images and notes have enabled me to settle myself back into thinking through and reflecting on the three sessions I attended - held in Ruthin, Manchester and Newcastle.

I was really pleased to be able to attend all three regional sessions for our research project.  It enabled me to get a sense of how each group works together, and the differences between the three locations.  

Each geographical team has a rich and deep connection to their academic community and professional practice, as well as with the associated collaborative services of art, creativity and the aspects of dementia care that relate to those that are taking part in the programme.

In Ruthin I was particularly taken by the attendance at the event of people with early stage dementia; a few of the people who had been taking part in the scheduled creative research sessions.  The opportunity to share time and discussion with them felt somehow very precious. I felt an admiration for their courage to join in and share their personal stories with us. You could see they were very keen to share their experiences. 

The audience seemed to have a strength in numbers of providers of dementia services in the North Wales area, yet not everyone knew each other, or what they did specifically.  An important part of the day was focussed on sharing 'what do you do/what do you know/what are your future plans' discussion session, and you could both see and feel the enthusiasm rise in the room as awareness grew through the shared conversations.

The Craft Centre in Ruthin is fabulous, with exhibition and cafe space, alongside conference facilities and workshop rooms as well as artists’ studios.  The whole place has a distinct air of excitement, a strong whiff of potential for fun, exploration and creativity and I think we all tried very hard to meet this.  After visiting the gallery to look at the current exhibition and discuss the works, our 'messy bit' was hilarious, loud and enjoyable.  Guided expertly by the intervention artists Sian and Tara, there was little if any silence in the room and despite the early echoes of 'I can't do art', 'I haven't done art for years', 'I have no idea what to do', everyone produced something we all proudly called art.  We all got a certificate of attendance too!
The event in Manchester was just two days later, amidst the calm of a university building approaching its summer period of holidays and quiet contemplation.  Many of the audience, reflecting the different stage of the participant's dementia journey this team is working with, were people connected to the NHS Assessment Centres where participants have a durational stay whilst their needs are assessed.  I believe there were also quite a few artists, creatives, open thinkers who share and enjoy the challenge of the Arts for Health team research approach and outputs. It felt distinctly different in some ways to the audience of two days earlier, yet still repeated messages of imagination being allowed to flourish, of dis-inhibition, of stimulation and play, collaboration and sharing being key to what feels like great progress even at this stage of the project.
As had happened in Ruthin, noise levels rose significantly in the room as the group responded to the two intervention artists, Sam and Chris, with their collection of objects used to stimulate some great conversation and discussion.  We were enticed into another view of the world, to consider things from different angles, to open up and share our thoughts and ideas in a very open way and it was clear to see the audience were very much engaged; we were all participants in the same artistic process.  
Penny Klepuszewska's great reading performance enabled us to listen to a small part of her research response to working with the team during their time at the NHS Assessment Centre in Bakewell.  The powerful sense of the voices and characters she encountered, starkly contrasted with wording from the assessment forms brought a unique, poignant and sometimes hilarious view of the research process that she has encountered.
July brought the final event in Newcastle at the Great North Museum: Hancock with a full audience of care professionals, artists and significant others who all wanted to hear something of the progress we have made to date on the project.  I have been working as the Research Artist with this team so I thought I would be familiar with most of what was going to be presented, but no, there was much that was also new to me too.  Andrew and Anna presented seamlessly about their research progress to date and were followed by Alice from Equal Arts who had recently visited Japan and Amsterdam for research sharing and discussion about their and our approaches to dementia.
The two intervention artists, Claire and Kate delivered a lively session which everyone took part in - getting us to use our sense of smell, touch, hearing and taste to then respond with words, marks, drawn lines, pattern, cut paper; all responding to the familiar and the unusual, facilitated with enthusiasm and encouragement that they shared with everyone. I performed my developing response to my research; When I think of you, I think of Sundays, which also provoked an interesting discussion to add to a day which was full of great sharing of past successes and positive futures. 
Reflecting back on the three sessions together gives me a real sense of people knowing each other better at the end, of the hard teamwork and collaboration that has increased the groundswell of information sharing and networks, which we can only hope makes for a better future for those with dementia and for those who surround them.

by Jeni McConnell

Added on: 09 October 2015

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