“This is a shilling, and here’s a threepenny bit and here’s…”

Watching a very elderly woman patiently explaining the pre-decimal currency system of Britain to a genuinely interested and much younger woman was a delight. Even more so when one understood that the older lady had dementia, and the younger was one of a team of carers.  

I am absolutely no expert when it comes to memory clinics, or dementia or “reminiscence therapy”. But I have observed and shared the pleasure that archives can provide when talking to people with dementia and the people who care for them.

For people with dementia the past is often more brilliant – more vivid, more exciting, and more coherent – than the present. I want to describe here my work in a memory cafe and a residential home specialising in dementia care.

An important catalyst in this process was with my neighbour Barbara.  After her devoted husband died we discovered the full extent of Barbara’s dementia, and we, her neighbours, helped her to stay in her much-loved home for eighteen months. There were plenty of opportunities for Barbara and I to enjoy a surreal and curiously light-hearted relationship.

Her condition wasn’t improved by her chain-smoking and her diet which mostly consisted of sweet sherry and fondant fancies. But Barbara was joyous and anarchic company. It taught me that dementia is not horrible all the time by any means.  Barbara loved the cinema when she was young, often going to “the pictures” with her pals, and I recall my kindly partner dancing down our quiet road with Barbara, both of them singing songs from films of the nineteen forties to the bemusement of the occasional passing driver.  She burnt entire packets of firelighters in the woodstove because they made such a lovely blaze, and regularly walked three miles to the village shop to purchase sherry and fags. It might sound tragic, as though she was drowning her sorrows, but actually Barbara had forgotten her sorrows, loved an afternoon tipple, and saw absolutely no reason why not. People with dementia can be very happy and sometimes archives can help.

The sessions at the memory café and in the care home were attended by a self-selecting audience. Which is to say that carers and staff might be responsible for bringing them round the table, but they were only there because they wanted to be. 

The memory café sessions were a version of “tea and chat” with prompts consisting of ephemera and documents. In view of the proximity of tea and cake it was essential to use facsimiles and surrogates ! The sessions in the residential home usually lasted about an hour, with a core group of about six or eight residents and a member of staff. We were also joined by other members of staff on their tea breaks, because they enjoyed the documents and reminiscences as well. It was a cheerful group.

People in a residential home come from all walks of life.  On my first visit I discovered an old friend had recently been admitted, someone who once held an important post at the National Library of Wales. On the next occasion I met the author of a beautiful and scholarly book on the natural history of Ceredigion. There was a chap who was a policeman in Botswana before independence. I was also reunited with a gentleman I used to meet in the crowd at local football matches; a marvellous, shy, funny character who had lived a solitary life on a hill farm venturing into town once a week for shopping and the football. Then there was the lady who used to run a country post office, the RAF officer’s widow, a shopkeeper – such a diverse group.  

Choosing a theme for a session in sharing memories was consequently something that had to be considered quite carefully, and we looked for general themes that had a wide application. It was all meant to be light hearted too. Few people live without sorrow and tragedy, and there are some memories which are best left unrecovered if possible.

So we had sessions on childhood games, on hobbies and sport, and entertainments, on recollections of the sea-side, on shopping, on clothing and on food ( so many things at Ceredigion Archives come back to food!). We did a session on the Second World War – I was nervous about that one lest it bring back bad memories, but staff at the residential home wanted to give it a try. It resulted in some marvellous memories of the Isle of Man during the war, the joys of army training, and encounters with dashing young officers in London in wartime.

Selecting the documents was fun. This is the time to ignore the fifteenth century title deeds and whip out the twentieth century stuff. This is when ephemera has its moment in the limelight. The format of the sessions involved taking well-protected documents and/or surrogates, and sometimes some artefacts which had relevance to the theme for the day.

Chief amongst these was the box of pre-decimal coinage. Everyone over the age of 55 (as I write !) should have a memory of some kind of the ‘old money’ consisting of heavy “coppers”  : pennies, half-pennies (abbreviated to “ha’pennies”), “threepenny bits”, sixpences known as ‘tanners’, shillings – often called ‘bobs’, florins – known as ‘two bob’ because their value was that of two shillings – and half crowns. Older people would also remember farthings (one quarter of a penny in value, and bearing the picture of a wren), of crowns, and of the older silver-coloured threepenny bit. Notes too were different, and larger – the brown ten shilling note, the green pound note, and the blue £5 note ; only the last of these still exists, in a diminutive version.

Just as muscle-memory is powerful, so is the memory of touch, and I frequently observed delight as people felt the shapes and weight of coins which had been so familiar to them in former years. 

Because not only the range of experience but also the range of condition between the residents was considerable I tried to cater for a range of intellectual competencies. One thing that people in residential homes all have in common, to a certain extent, is age, so I used documents which might evoke memories for people between the age of about 75 and 95.

At the time of writing I would be concentrating on documents created between 1930 and 1955 to remind people of their childhood years, and about 1945 – 1980 when discussing work, courtship and marriage, families, and other matters of adult life.   

We used large-scale Ordnance Survey maps to trace the roads of local towns and remember particular shops and businesses. That worked really well.

We used retail price lists from a grocer’s business of the 1950s, and advertisements from old papers and magazines. We used photographs (scanned & enlarged), scrapbooks, postcards, magazines and newspapers – copies are more practical and resilient than originals, although remember that touch and ‘feel’ can be an important trigger for memory.

Other artefacts apart from the pre-decimal money, included a Hornby train set, a sea-side windmill and a game of dominoes. Vintage kitchen implements can be fun, but do consider health and safety!

You can never tell which way the conversation will go, so these are very unlike other outreach events archives attempt. Concentration varies hugely from person to person – and indeed from visit to visit – so if something isn’t working it’s good to have a plan B up your sleeve. Going with the flow is good, but also trying to make sure everyone gets their say can be challenging – and all contributions must be properly acknowledged and honoured.  Sometimes someone won’t want to contribute but they are listening – I had feedback from a staff member on one man who I thought was snoozing throughout but turned out to be listening and wanted to let me know his story after the session had formally ended. Residents tended to be supportive and kind to one another : I cherish the memory of one very elderly man patting another sympathetically on the knee after the revelation that sixty years before, he had always been too shy to ask a girl to dance when he went to Aberystwyth’s iconic Kings Hall, and would gaze in hopeless adoration from the safety of the bar. 

It appeared that for the people in the group it was heartening to have the confidence to be centre stage. The confidence comes from the certainty of their past, and its evocation to an interested audience. We all know how debilitating and depressing it is to lose confidence in oneself, and that can be a major factor with dementia.  The sessions helped to restore confidence and self-respect, as these very elderly people got an opportunity to shine, and explain the fascinating unknowns of the past to us “youngsters”.

It’s was nice for the staff too. Working in a residential home is a very tough job. There’s lots of physical work, the work can be frustrating, it can be very tiring, both physically and emotionally, and the responsibilities are considerable. Often the pay isn’t great. Younger members of staff may find it difficult to imagine their clients as ever having been young people like themselves. In these sessions the staff don’t have to work, don’t have to be in charge, and they seem to really enjoy listening and joining in. It’s most fun when the residents take the lead, as in the example quoted at the beginning of this blog.  

And what benefit does the Archive get out of this ? We get better known in the community as a service which has something amazing to offer. And we have the feeling that we’re doing something positive and good, and that it’s being appreciated – albeit in a transient and existential way by the principal beneficiaries.

But there’s other stuff too.   Many of the people I worked with were very very old – in their mid or later nineties. One or two sometimes died between one session and the next.  Some had been personal friends for many years. Some were newer friends whose brilliant pasts I was privileged to share. I can’t say it didn’t make me a bit sad. It makes one realise anew how astonishingly wonderful and diverse and fragile life is. Very old people are likely to die of course, but it is a real memento mori and rather wonderful to see how these particular people, apparently so diminished by a cruel disease, can yet be so vital and engaging as they approach the end of life.

It also makes one remember that thing about archives : how solid and enduring paper and parchment is. I still find it surprising that the vivid contents of every brain just disappears unless the stories inside it are written down. It does make one appreciate how statistically insignificant – but also how culturally precious – our archives are in their role signifying past human thought and action.

We often use the words memory and archives together. Archives are ‘corporate memory’ and ‘community memory’. Archives are in fact only a pale shadow of real memory, the evidence within them out-living the transient memory of the human brain to provide a semi-coherent impression of the past.

They’re partial, patchy, pathetic things really, just hinting at the rich intricacies of human history, but they’re all we’ve got which is what makes them so precious.

I have to admit that I’ve derived a perverse pleasure in not trying to harvest the stories, the bright moments of the past that I heard in this work, because it wasn’t the purpose of my being there. It made it feel like a holiday to me.

The use of archives in this particular respect relates to ‘living memory’. I used twentieth century items from the collections to prompt narratives, to stir memories and to provide pleasure. As a profession we are increasingly expected to produce qualitative & quantative analysis of our outreach work and its benefits. I hope that somewhere we can proudly include, although maybe we cannot measure, the qualities of vitality and fun.

Helen Palmer,
County Archivist / Information and Records Manager
Ceredigion Archives

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