Thanks for the memories

Saturday, 07 March 2015

A life in stories

Whether it’s memories of D-Day landings or receiving a slice of the Queen’s wedding cake, telling life stories can both reassure care home residents and help personalise the type of support they receive. Imogen Beecroft reports

Tuesday, 6 June 1944 was Doris Taylor’s day off. She was taking a break from the Women’s Royal Naval Service but had been called in to help re-kit survivors who had not reached the shores of France during the D-Day landings. ‘You don’t say no when you’re asked to help,’ she remarks.

Doris recalls being asked to tie a tiddly bow on the side of a cap band by a soldier: ‘I said I wasn’t very good at it, but he said he’d talk me through it. So, with his instruction, I did.’ 

When Doris went to put the soldier’s cap on, she noticed that his hands were red-raw and bleeding. ‘I said he needed to get that seen to, but he told me not to say anything. He’d been waiting to be taken on board the rescue boat, and the only things he could hold on to were wires. He’d been in the sea for hours, waiting, and they’d cut right through his hands. That day has remained with me all my life. I can still see those men. I can still hear them. I’ve never forgotten it.’

This is the story Doris chose to share with her fellow residents at the RMBI care home Prince Edward Duke of Kent Court in Essex on National Tell a Story Day, 27 October 2014. Residents from all the RMBI care homes told stories of key moments in their lives that day, which the RMBI then collated into a book and distributed among care home staff, residents and their families. 

The day was part of a wider RMBI initiative centred on life story work. Debra Keeling, Deputy Director of Care Operations at the RMBI, explains this process: ‘Life story work involves a biographical approach, which gives people the opportunity to talk about their life experiences. It involves recording relevant aspects of a person’s past and present life with the aim of using this life story to benefit them in their present situation.’

Big or small, pivotal or trivial, these memories help bring elderly people out of themselves, bonding with other residents and carers as they share their stories. 

With more than 820,000 people in the UK diagnosed with dementia, the RMBI estimates that 650 of its residents have the condition. Life story work can be particularly beneficial for those with dementia as it promotes individualised care and builds relationships between staff and residents. 

‘The potential benefits of life story work as an intervention for people with dementia and their families have been recognised for some time,’ explains Debra. ‘Medical and social research is continually evolving in the field of dementia, and the adoption of new best practices is a fundamental philosophy of the RMBI. A key objective in dementia care is to reduce the use of anti-psychotic medication, replacing it with activities and environments that both reduce potentially threatening situations and create a reassuring ambience.’

‘A key objective in dementia care is to reduce the use of medication, replacing it with activities and environments that create a reassuring ambience.’ Debra Keeling

New chapters

Becky Timms, Business Administrator at RMBI care home Albert Edward Prince of Wales Court in Mid Glamorgan, has been at the forefront of life story work, and has seen some significant transformations among her residents. ‘One lady in particular used to be part of a drama group for elderly people. Since her husband passed away she hasn’t been able to go to it, but she took a lead role in the storytelling programme and has done lots of different readings. She’s really come into her own and you can see the confidence in her storytelling improve over the weeks.’

For Becky’s team, National Tell a Story Day was the culmination of more than a year’s life story work. They had been running successful fortnightly storytelling sessions, at which a member of staff or visitor read the residents a story. The effect on some of the residents was overwhelming: ‘Our carers were very surprised how well our dementia residents responded to the storytelling and the kind of conversations it stimulated afterwards.’ 

Some of the residents at Albert Edward Prince of Wales Court have such severe dementia that they cannot perform daily life tasks. ‘But then a poem will be spoken and they’ll mouth along to the words because they remember them,’ says Becky. ‘The memory is there because it’s something they learnt so long ago. Hopefully, for those couple of minutes they can just enjoy themselves, and enjoy taking part.’ 

In life story work, residents’ recollections can range from historic occasions to something from their youth. John Wadia, who was an RAF flight engineer, flew US President Franklin D Roosevelt on several occasions. John recalls, ‘He was down to earth and a very nice person.’

One of the most popular stories to come out of this initiative was that of Alan Baker, who set up a Father Christmas call line for charity. Parents would give a donation to charity, and then either Alan or one of his friends would ring their children at an appointed time, pretending to be Father Christmas:

I spoke to Emma and she wanted new dolls. At the other end she said, ‘Would you like to speak to Fiona?’

I said, ‘Yes, if she wants to speak to me.’ So then Fiona came on the phone. 

I said, ‘Where would you like me to leave your presents?’

She said, ‘If you leave me some surprises at the end of my bed that would be lovely.’

I said, ‘Do you clean your teeth twice a day?’

She said, ‘Yes.’

I said, ‘Do you wash your hands after you’ve been to the toilet?’

She said, ‘Yes.’ And then she said, ‘By the way, I’m nineteen and I’m the babysitter.’

Complementary care

Life story work is just one of many initiatives run by the RMBI to help those with dementia. Another is building sensory gardens, and Debra says, ‘We try to recreate spaces where people with dementia are able to experience a high level of wellbeing and independence while still feeling safe. The RMBI has created small domestic-style gardens where people with dementia can enjoy many different sensory experiences, as well as having a quiet place to sit and enjoy the garden.’

The RMBI has opened a number of dementia support units in its homes. Given the success of National Tell a Story Day and the life story work in general, it’s no surprise that the charity is also planning to maintain the initiative. 

Becky’s storytelling sessions will continue, and she hopes to receive funding to print a monthly leaflet with a changing selection of poems and readings. ‘These would be distributed to residents, but also available in reception for visitors to pick up and read to them.’

Audrey Brown, Activities Coordinator at Prince Edward Duke of Kent Court, says, ‘I want to do our own little booklet. Having seen the success of the last one, I think it would be really nice to make a booklet of experiences from our own residents, so they can read each other’s stories.’

Doris is already looking forward to telling more of her stories. ‘I’ve got lots,’ she laughs, ‘but some I couldn’t put into print!’

‘Big or small, pivotal or trivial, these memories help bring elderly people out of themselves, bonding with other residents and carers.’


JULIUS PACHTER, ninety-six, reflected on life as a Jew in Nazi Germany, and told the story of his escape. ‘The only way I could escape was by speaking German, raising my arm and saying “Heil Hitler”.’

BERYL HUME, ninety-three, remembered receiving a slice of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip’s wedding cake as a thanks to her husband who was a Guard of Honour at the ceremony. ‘I have not had a taste and would have never dreamed of it! I have kept the cake safe for all these years; it is very special to me.’

MARGARET HASELL GOULDBOURN, ninety-six, shared her experiences as a volunteer for the Merchant Navy, writing letters to the loved ones of merchant seamen. ‘I think the voluntary work during the war kept the country going and kept everyone’s morale up. Everyone felt they wanted to do their duty, me included.’

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