Christmas Appeal: Refreshed by drawing from the well of memory

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The Independent Online
THE NOTICE on the window says "yo-yos in stock", which include the largest I have seen, writes Jeremy Laurance. I buy one for my 10- year-old and ask Joyce Milan to road test it for me. It is 68 years since she last practised (as a 10-year-old herself) but within seconds she has the saucer-sized contraption rising and falling smoothly with a deft flick of her wrist. Funny how the old toys are the best, I say.

This sets Joyce off. We are standing in the Reminiscence Centre in Blackheath, south London, surrounded by objects and artefacts from half a century ago displayed next to the Christmas toys and decorations on sale. She reaches for a bottle of Parrish's Food. "We had this as a tonic as kids." There is a box labelled "Snowfire" for chilblains - unheard of today - and next to that a tub of tablets called "Lung Healers". Joyce sniffs, contemptuously. "Imagine that - healing your lungs for sixpence."

This is the virtue of memory. It reveals, not progress necessarily, but continuity. Digging up the past helps to anchor identity and casts a line forward to the future. Reminiscence therapy, especially for those whose memory is fading, is about restoring the sense of self that can grow ragged with age.

Joyce is a practitioner, not a client, even though, like most of the volunteers here, she is pushing 80. May Wootton, whom she has befriended, is 97 and has Alzheimer's disease. She also has a sense of mischief and a sexy, throaty laugh. She is cared for by her daughter, Pat Gregory, 71, and the pair of them have discovered a life they didn't know they had since coming here last February.

Alzheimer's robs people of their past and of themselves. But it is surprising how much can be done to help those afflicted reconnect with their forgotten, younger selves and in doing so tap into a new source of energy and interest.

Almost the first thing visible on entering the Reminiscence Centre is an old clothes mangle. There are irons, tools and typewriters - and visitors are encouraged to handle them. Objects can act as triggers; smell and touch can be more evocative than sight. Bodies remember familiar actions in a way that minds do not.

According to Pat, May is brighter and more alert since coming to the centre. "She has her good days and her bad days, but she loves coming." Reminiscence therapy, which also involves music and dance, looking at old photographs, painting and drawing and talking over old times, is an established treatment for depression and can save elderly people from the creeping isolation and despair that is the lot of so many.

The Reminiscence Centre is run by Age Exchange, founded more than a decade ago by a former theatre director, Pam Schweitzer. It puts on shows and events, runs computer workshops, organises visits for schools and seeks in all its activities to bring the past to life. Its example is now being followed by organisations all over the world and it has recently established a European Reminiscence Network, involving 12 countries, to share experience and ideas.

Age Concern has strong links with the centre. But it also runs reminiscence groups of its own throughout the country. It has just published a book, Reminiscence and Recall, by Professor Faith Gibson, which spells out how reminiscence can be encouraged and how it can strengthen identity and the bonds between patient and carer. Professor Gibson says: "As well as looking just at the present - where people may be bored, lonely, frustrated, complaining or frightened - you can use reminiscence to look back at how they used to be, and discover the richness and complexity of their lives."

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