So I have spent the majority of my day building a bookcase. The bookcase in question is a rather lowly one from Argos. It is based on a walnut wood, although it is more like fire or chipboard with a very cheap plastic veneer.
The reason for this is that I am currently working on a piece for Dementia Friendly Hampshire that will be toured around three towns in Hampshire to promote the idea of dementia friendly high streets and to increase awareness of autism.
In November I met with a lovely lady called Jane who is a dementia champion and whose own mother passed away from vascular dementia early in 2014. In our four hour long discussion (I kid you not) she told me how they (many who work within dementia awareness) view dementia as an old and tatty DIY bookcase, the sort to be purchased at many shops that are not made of real wood. The suggestion being that if you move one of these bookcases which appear ok when new, many times over, they begin to tatter and start to fall apart.
Now every shelf on this bookcase refers to an era in that persons life: their memories. The bottom (and sturdiest shelf) is childhood and the top shelf is the present. On the shelves in between is the rest of their existence.
As the bookcase ages and gets moved around it starts to falter: the items that were once on it start to fall off, move around and fragment , starting with the top (the present) (we are not patiently removing the pieces here but moving the bookcase with all of its items: memories in this case on board).
Eventually the only part of the bookcase that is still in good condition is the sturdiest part, the base and first shelf: childhood.
This represents what happens through the progression of any form of dementia. The memories we once held dear start to disappear, this progression continues until death and often, shortly before death, the only memories that remain are those left from childhood. Everything else, every other facet of our existence disappears.
Although a sad thought this also explains why dementia can be so confusing for everyone. Us, because we expect that person to know who we are,and them because as far as they are concerned we don’t exist, we are not on the same timeline as one another.
It can also be a good, or rather more benign thing, once we let go of our held assumptions about that person, our relationship to them and even what it is to be human. Jane told me about how dementia enabled her mother and her to have a relationship they could never have before; for the first time in her life she felt genuine affection and love from her mother.
Jane told me a story about how she always thought her mother was embarrassed by her and preferred her “perfect” cousin. She had carried this feeling throughout her life; her mother had never really told her she loved her and would always downplay her achievements. Once her mother got ill and moved in with Jane she started to warm to her (to Jane). She no longer recognised her as her daughter and instead believed they were friends. One day she was telling her about her daughter Jane and what a lovely child she was. Jane suggested she preferred Jane’s cousin to which her mother replied that “no” she thought the cousin was a spoilt and rude child but she did not want to boast about Jane as she didn’t find it necessary. Jane explained who she was and her mother had a fleeting recognition of her daughter and for a moment they embraced.
This Jane said, was one of her favourite moments and put to rest a lot of feelings of self hatred she had held onto for years.
I only mention the bookcase and the idea, as this is forming my piece for the touring exhibition. As mentioned earlier I have been constructing this bookcase in a higgledypiggledy fashion all day and it already looks quite good. Tomorrow I am going to continue my destruction of this bookcase to create a real world example of the bookcase analogy.
I feel this fits in well with my MA although it is for an unrelated exhibition. Like the rest of my current work it explores what it means to be human, it questions what identity is and who, we ultimately are.