Memory lane

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Step back in time with 6th East Kilbride Beaver Scouts, who have been sharing memories with older people as part of their project for A Million Hands

Words: Aimee-lee Abraham | Pictures: Ashley Coombes and Jon Challicom

We’re in a hospital room on the edge of Glasgow, though you might not realise it at a glance. There are very few wires and machines in sight. Instead, there are tea sets and biscuit tins, hat stands overflowing with vintage clothes, and newspaper clippings covering the walls, each declaring a major world event from the last century.

Members of the 6th East Kilbride Beaver Colony have come here to pay a visit to Memory Lane – a special room within Hairmyres Hospital that helps older people, and especially those living with dementia, to feel more at home during their stay.

When the elderly care team first acquired the space, it was a storage cupboard. Today, it’s a refuge beloved by patients, staff and visitors alike. Activities Co-ordinator Carol McKechnie is also chief decorator. Working to combat the common anxieties that come with being in hospital, she’s spent hours of her free time scouring charity shops and jumble sales to decorate the room in an authentic 1940s style, and even acquired some chintzy china dogs for the mantelpiece. ‘They might seem random, but I assure you every household in Glasgow had that same set of china dogs!’ she laughs.

The Beavers have come along to hand out customised memory boxes, lovingly packed the night before using materials that relate specifically to each person’s life story. One of the patients they’re meeting today, Thomas McCready, used to be a taxi driver, ferrying partygoers to and from the city centre. In his memory box, the Beavers have included photos of the popular Glaswegian dancehalls he may have frequented, maps of the roads he might have driven, and audio samples of the most popular rock and roll hits of the era. Since Thomas is the hospital’s resident sweet tooth, they’ve made sure to pack plenty of sugar mice into the box, alongside bars of nougat, and enough of the traditional Scottish sweet known as ‘tablet’ to sink a ship.

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Beavers brought along boxes of things to bring back memories, like soap and sweets

Sparking the senses

That’s not all. Tapping into all five senses – taste, sight, touch, smell and sound – is an effective way to help people with dementia to recall events. The Beavers have also brought a traditional shaving brush – which they use to tickle each other when no one is looking – and some very divisively scented samples. These include a bar of carbolic soap, which was used for laundry and bathing during World War II, and ribbons dipped in the most popular perfumes and aftershaves of Thomas’ youth. Beaver Ross thinks the Chanel N°5 smells like toxic waste ’. Sofia thinks the smell is 'quite nice, actually’. Olly agrees with her; he also likes the 'flowery’ scent, and thinks it smells precisely like his own nannie’s house.

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As well as handing out the boxes, the Beavers are here to share stories, visit the wards with some sweets, and take part in some arts and crafts. All morning, the room has been full of all the usual squeals of laughter and chatter Beaver leaders will be accustomed to hearing. But when former artist Margaret Canning arrives, the Beavers put down their pens. Huddled around her, they listen, transfied, as she tals about what life was like for seven-year-olds during World War II. ‘I remember the war vividly. We’d be at school when an alarm would suddenly sound, and we’d all have to run outside to the Anderson shelter.’

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Young people worked with the older people to do arts and crafts and share stories 

'Was it like a fire alarm?’ asks Olly. 'I don’t like the fire alarm at school. It’s so loud.' 'Yes, it was a lot like a fire alarm, but it was much scarier because it was there to warn us about the bombs,’ she replies. ‘Mind you, I think we were all quite pleased to go down there... It was much better to go into the shelter and sing songs than to be sat in a stuffy classroom!’

When Margaret was evacuated from her home in Liverpool to a farm in Wales, she was the same age most of the Beavers are now. And though there are many differences between their childhood experiences, Margaret has much in common with the group.

Both parties share a mutual love for painting. Margaret’s history working as an artist makes her the perfect colouring-in companion, and as she watches them draw, she gives them advice on the best contrasts and combinations to use.

They all have a passion for eating cake, though Margaret avoids sugar these days due to her diabetes. Both have also been involved in earning badges as part of Scouting or Girlguiding. In fact, Margaret has even tried the very same egg-painting activity they’re also doing together today. She remembers doing it herself as a child on wartime rations, using vegetable peel instead of commercial dyes, and practising it later on with her own children and grandchildren. She also remembers being ‘pretty rubbish’ at being a Brownie, earning far fewer accolades than the young people here today. ‘Just look at you all! I had nowhere near that many badges. You’ve got so many they’re practically an extra layer of insulation!’ she laughs.

When the Beavers decided they wanted to do something to help ‘nannies and granddads’ for their A Million Hands project, linking up with the staff and patients at Memory Lane was a natural evolution. Beaver Scout Leader Andrew Craig works for NHS Lanarkshire, and already had a strong network of dementia experts to lean upon for support and advice. Visiting the ward at Christmas with his children, he suspected that his Beavers would love it just as much as they did, and he was right.

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Beaver Scout Leader Andrew helps the young people to share memories with Margaret

All ages 

Consulting with parents and with the Beavers themselves, the group shifted its focus firmly onto the issue of dementia and set about encouraging intergenerational relationships, within their own families and within the section. Though there were some hesitations at first, the whole thing has been a roaring success. First, they had a visit from Mairi Houldsworth, a dementia expert who organised activity sessions that Andrew says taught the young people, ‘just a little about dementia, but more than enough for them to help’.

Next, they made several trips to the hospital, and put on an intergenerational, dementia-friendly, screening of The Wizard of Oz at the local cinema. On the night, volunteers put up dementia-friendly signage and Beavers acted as traditional ushers and usherettes, handing out choc ices and sweets during the intermission. Before long, most of them had become registered Dementia Friends, an initiative by the Alzheimer’s Society to change people’s perceptions about the condition and help those living with it.

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Beavers and Cubs attend a dementia-friendly screening of the Wizard of Oz

‘This project was something we had to decide on as a whole section, involving the young people and parents at every stage, to make sure they were happy with it and knew what to expect,’ explains Andrew. ‘Children can be a little nervous entering a clinical environment. The lighting is stark. There may be wires and cables and noises they don’t recognise. But young people have fewer preconceptions about the world, and their openness can lead to awakenings in older people. Children treat people like people if you let them.’

For Mairi, the project was all about changing perceptions. ‘When young people visit the wards, there’s no judgement. No stigma. They just go and have fun. It works for everybody and it’s key for us: the intergenerational element. What we want to show wider society is that there’s more than just a diagnosis. That a diagnosis is not the end. There are ways to live positively with dementia. By raising a whole new generation of people who are engaged with the issue, we can really make a difference.’

At the end of the visit, the Beavers do one last round to spend a little time with the other patients on Ward 13. One of the other ‘nannies’ they meet tells them she used to be an opera singer and excitement levels peak again. Music is one of the Beavers’ favourite topics, and whenever they listen to song samples selected for the visit, the room fills with glee. Ross leaps up to do his best ‘Elvis legs’ impression, while the others bury their heads in their jumpers, giggling and tapping their feet.

Among themselves, they regularly chat about which items they’d put into their own memory boxes. ‘I’d include clips from The Lego Movie, and my favourite song ‘Everything is Awesome!’’ says Cooper. 

‘I’d pick Ed Sheeran songs and my softball,’ says Ross.

Leeanne, mum of Beaver Aaron, confessed: ‘I was quite emotional when we last visited the hospital. But the kids were so amazing. They aren’t fazed by any of it.’ Andrew concurs. ‘You can see their whole body language change when they realise they’re having an impact on the people they meet. You can see them thinking, “Wow, I can really do something here, and I’m only seven!” Their enthusiasm is infectious.’ He pauses before adding, ‘Every week they amaze me.’

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For more information about our A Million Hands campaign, visit amillionhands.org.uk.
To access resources on how to talk about dementia with your young people, visit amillionhands.org.uk/resource

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