Time and Place poetry project for people living with dementia

Date added: 25 February 2021

In 2016, when Jess Shaw started at The University of Kent, she wanted to immerse herself in her new local community; so when her university sent round a list of volunteering opportunities, she jumped at the chance to get involved in one. There was one particular project that stood out to her, and that was the Dreams and Visions project – a set of workshops designed to aid those living with Dementia to write short film scripts.

“As a student of English Literature, Classics and Archaeology, I love to be creative, and I felt that this project would both help people in the community and also provide me with a creative outlet. I also felt personally invested in this project because my grandfather had dementia, and so getting to support those who have been diagnosed and their families seemed like an amazing opportunity.”

The weekly sessions ran for nine weeks and were run by author and group facilitator, Liz Jennings. They encouraged participants from the Forget me nots dementia group, a group of people with different diagnoses of dementia which is supported by KMPT, to write their life stories. These were then adapted into plays and performed at the Marlowe Kit in Canterbury.

“Going along to Dreams and Visions was the highlight of my week, and when the project ended, I really wanted to find a way to develop more creative outlets for those living with dementia.”

Jess continued to volunteer with the Forget-me-nots, a group of people living with dementia, which is supported by KMPT. She was delighted that Keith Oliver, one of KMPT’s dementia envoys, invited her to the Alzheimer’s Society with him for a meeting, and it made her want to continue to break down the misconceptions around dementia and support those with a diagnosis.

At the time, the University of Kent had a community scholarship fund, available to its students to help them pay for projects they would like to support in the local community. Jess was supported by Keith Oliver and Liz Jennings to apply for funding to develop the ‘Time and Place’ project, a set of five workshops for those in the Forget me nots and the SUNshiners (a service user group based in Dover) to develop poetry centred on the history of Canterbury and their own memories. Keith, Liz, and Jess were inspired to run a poetry project after reading John Killick’s book Poetry and Dementia. In the book Killick described writing poems based on people with dementia’s words, whereas Time and Place would encourage people with dementia to write their own poetry.

“Poetry is an ideal form because it can provide structure for participants. It can also be completely unstructured and be whatever you want it to be. One of the members of the Forget me nots told me he didn’t know how to write poetry, but the beauty of it is that everyone can. It can be something as simple as a shopping list if you want it to be. The idea is to express yourself and your thoughts in a creative way.”

Her bid was successful and she was given a £1000.00 scholarship and £950.00 to get the project on its feet! Keith and Jess asked Liz Jennings to run the sessions, and the Beaney Library kindly offered to provide the group with a room for free as they were keen to support people with dementia. The project was due to start on 13 May 2020, and run for five weeks, with the participants taking part in 2 hours (on average) long sessions, where they would walk around Canterbury and draw on their own life experiences to create personal poetry. Twelve service users signed up for the project; and with the help of Clare Streeter, KMPT’s Voluntary Services Empowerment and Liaison Coordinator, Jess manged to recruit more students from her university to volunteer at each of these sessions, so that each person taking part could have one-to-one attention as well as someone who could act as a scribe to help encourage and develop creativity.

And then COVID-19 struck.

“The moment we (Keith, Liz and I) realised that the project could not take place in the way we had planned, we started thinking of ways we could still engage with the participants online. As we couldn’t walk around Canterbury, Liz suggested we change the focus from the history of Canterbury to examining your home in a new light. Each week we focused on a different room in the house, encouraging those isolated at home to view their environment in a fun way. We had to work out the best platform that would be most accessible to people – which was a challenge. Keith, Liz and I felt that a zoom class could be draining and perhaps be too intimidating to participate in for some people - it's always hard to judge when to speak on a video call! So instead we settled on posting short videos of poetry exercises on Liz’s blog once a week, so participants can work through them at their own pace – which has worked really well!”

As originally planned, the participants were supported by student volunteers who checked-in on them each week and met up with them virtually to go through the exercises. There were fifteen primary participants, who come from our Canterbury based Forget me nots, Dover based SUNshiners, and DEEP network members (including some people based in Scotland and Wales!). There were 6 volunteers, including Jess, on hand to support the workshops, and a huge variety of material has been submitted to the blog!

Clare is delighted that Jess and the other student volunteers who originally signed up to be a part of the project were so keen to stay involved.

“Being a student can be a very isolating experience, you are moving away from home and for many they have few contact hours and have a lot of spare time, which doesn’t suit everyone’s personality. By bringing students into our dementia projects, it gives everyone involved a sense of purpose, and unites people who might not normally interact with the creative arts. With COVID-19, it’s been even more poignant that students have been involved in projects like Time and Place, because they too feel in a state of flux, and so having two groups of people who feel isolated, confused and worried about the pandemic, has formed a lovely community of support and help, as well as a very useful creative outlet.

“The way KMPT views volunteers is very positive and inclusive, as Helen Greatorex is incredibly supportive of providing a space for volunteers to be creative and run their own projects that support our services. We need more young people like Jess to engage with our services because if we lose volunteers then we lose our services. And for the young volunteers, we can provide them with experience and references, but also life skills that they can take away with them like learning how to adapt their language and patience. We hope that our voluntary services are helping create a kinder community.”

Time and Place in some ways benefited from being taken online instead of being in person as the team managed to write and publish a book of their poetry! The DEEP network (The UK network of dementia voices) kindly provided funding for the works that the participants created during the workshops to be developed into a book with the proceeds going to DEEP. The book is beautifully illustrated by one of the participants, and includes the volunteers' and participants' experiences and thoughts on the project. When the book was published, Keith, Liz and Jess held a virtual book launch, so that everyone involved in the project could celebrate together and catch up.  

Although the project has now ended, its legacy lives on! Not just in the form of the book but it’s inspired DEEP to consider setting up a monthly poetry group and Keith and Jess have been giving talks about the project to various organisations (with Liz contributing videos about the project). Keith Oliver says: “For me the most significant impact of the whole project is that it lives on – through the poets, the students and for Liz, Jess and I. Everyone involved is still writing, still volunteering and still talking about the project. To me Time and Place hasn’t just been about writing wonderful poetry, it’s been about changing lives (hopefully) for the better and providing a creative outlet for people.”

It’s safe to say that the project has grown beyond everyone’s expectations and we’re so proud of Jess, Keith and Liz for creating not only a safe and creative space for those living with dementia but also for impacting the wider conversation about the types of groups and experiences that should be run to support people in the future.

Jess said of her experiences with our Voluntary services team: “Meeting the Forget-me-nots has been life changing. They are such a dynamic, inspiring and varied group of people, whose stories will stay with me, way beyond my years at Kent. I never in my wildest dreams have thought that the project Time and Place would grow so much and that I would help to publish a book of poetry! I’m so thankful to Keith, Liz and Clare for all their support and believing in my ideas. I would urge any young person who wants to help their local community to take a look at the volunteering opportunities at KMPT, because you really can make a change to people’s lives and they can to yours.”

Poems to be included:

In the Kitchen by Keith Tanka

Our cupboards are straight
Our minds however are less so
Letting go, quite hard
Reminders of my past self
Alongside a sense of the present
Looking in the mirror
Is the image really me?

Smile, frown, stare, blink. Yes
Reflecting and reflections
Remain, walk away, then fade
In the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

Max by Melvyn

White horses rush from out at sea
What a sight what I see
A big strong faithful heart I see
I see him run from the sea
With leathers flapping in the breeze

His coat shining in the sun
Is like it is when he was young
So useful, so serene, so dominant you see
He is powerful of the muscle

Yet so gentle
Also my friend, my carer,
My confidante

You can purchase the book, Time and Place Collected Poem on Amazon here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Collected-Poems-Time-Place/dp/1838127879/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1WF2P2X30G1WD&dchild=1&keywords=time+and+place+poetry&qid=1612195411&s=books&sprefix=time+and+place+%2Cstripbooks%2C295&sr=1-1