Puppetry and dementia support
There are many innovative ways to offer support to people living with dementia. Some, such as augmented reality, utilise cutting edge technology, but traditional art forms may be just as successful when it comes to prompting memories.
Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival (TWPF) has partnered with Age UK Tunbridge Wells to tell the stories of those living with dementia through puppetry, as captured in a 30-minute film screened earlier this year.
The many sides of puppetry
TWPF began in 2015 as a way to bring world-class examples of the craft to the people of Tunbridge Wells, with previous years featuring input from the people behind the puppet-centric West End productions War Horse and The Lion King. “Puppetry is an art form you can practise alone or with other people,” explains Linda Lewis, Artistic and Executive Director, who has worked in the arts for more than 40 years. “Puppetry involves so many different elements: making, manipulation, storytelling, design, acting, vocal and singing skills, and much more.”
The impetus for the project
“I’ve long been particularly interested in the care and progress of those living with dementia,” explains Linda. “Additionally, with the festival, our main audiences are young people and families, but I wanted to reach out to another sector of the community, because I believe that we should be engaging with older people, because as I grow older myself I believe that it is terribly important to include an d make sure we do not overlook the older generation.
An expert team
Linda settled on the idea of using shadow puppets as a way to help older people with dementia to recall their experiences. She decided to contact the “really kind and talented” people at Smoking Apples, an award-winning puppetry and visual theatre company based in South London she had worked with previously. She asked them to help design a programme for the dementia group that meets on Wednesdays at Age UK Tunbridge Wells. “It was for five weeks of workshops, in which there would be two representatives from the company delivering the different aspects of the work, such as puppet making, manipulation drawing, and storytelling or music, as ways to help people trigger memories. Those taking part in the workshops particularly enjoyed the music; the company had a guitarist who came along to sing songs, and some of the participants thoroughly enjoyed getting up to dance, which was lovely.”
Those same people successfully built relationships with Molly Freeman and Hattie Thomas, the co-directors of Smoking Apples, speaking to them at every opportunity to assist in the sharing of their stories. What is more, at the end of the five weeks, the company went away and weaved those stories into a semi-documentary that simultaneously captured the process undergone during the project and conveyed, through shadow puppetry, the stories shared by the participants.
The film was screened in October and can be viewed below.
Witnessing the benefits
“You’ll see on the film that the participants enjoyed the novelty and excitement that came from having the people from the project visiting them, and having a new ‘thing’ to work on,” explains Linda of the benefits of the project. “They clearly had an enjoyable experience, they enjoy joining together and working together, which they might not have previously done. Everybody who participated in it loved it. They experienced a sense of achievement in having created their puppets, and a sense of pride when they took them home with them.”
“We must not underestimate what we can achieve by spending quality time with people living with dementia,” summarises Linda. “Given the opportunity and the patience of the people listening, these people will tell you so much about themselves and their past experiences. Our team learned a huge amount and were very humbled by the work that came out of the project and how well it was received.”
“This was such a rewarding project to be involved with, not just for the clients at the Day Centre but also for the staff and volunteers too,” says Jo Marks, Dementia Service Manager at Age UK Tunbridge Wells. “There were so many opportunities for laughter, and it was extremely positive to see people opening up, relaxing, and communicating with each other. I think the film tells its own story.”
Jo continues: “I am a passionate believer in arts-based activities benefiting people living with dementia. Where communication, language, and meaning have begun to slip away, the arts can step in and make a difference. There is no right or wrong way of interpreting a piece of music, or a story, or a painting. We are so grateful to Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival and Smoking Apples Theatre Company for this innovative project. We’re hoping to continue to work with the festival and sustain the progress we’ve made – we are thinking about an inter-generational project next.”
Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival 2019
Planning is already underway for the Tunbridge Wells Puppetry Festival in October 2019 where the film will once again be presented.