Reminiscence in Bradford

Carol Greenwood

(First published in 1999 in volume 7, pp. 55-57, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

Reminiscence is fun!

We all enjoy sharing memories of the past, whatever our age or experience of life. It doesn't matter whether we are remembering a favourite teacher at school with an old school chum or reliving last month's holiday with family and friends, it's usually a pleasant social activity.

Not many years ago older people were often accused of 'living in the past' and actively discouraged from even talking about the past. More recently, however, the benefits of memory sharing and reminiscence activities are increasingly recognised and encouraged in hospitals, residential homes and day care centres. Whether it takes the form of an informal conversation or an organised group discussion reminiscence has been shown to improve the quality of older people's lives and their mental and physical health by providing mental and emotional stimulation. It helps to restore and preserve self esteem and develop a feeling of self worth.

Bradford is particularly fortunate in the facilities and help available to carers wishing to develop memory sharing activities.

Several of the many local history groups in the district have members who are happy to visit residential homes and day centres in their area to share their discoveries and often find this is of mutual benefit and a wonderful way to tap into the wealth of knowledge many of the older residents have about the area. This knowledge can provide a rich resource for students of social history often developing into an oral history project but more importantly by recognising the older person as 'The Expert' can provide a much needed boost to their self esteem.

For groups who are more mobile and able to visit Bradford Industrial Museum the staff of the Museums Education Service provide excellent opportunities for groups of adults to enjoy memory sharing sessions using the wonderful backdrop of the back to back cottages, the stables of the working horses, the old schoolroom and the textile and transport galleries.

As a librarian I am regularly asked by professional carers and activities organisers for items that can be used in reminiscence sessions but since the Local Studies Library is part of the Reference Library in Bradford the choice of items which are suitable and can be borrowed or copied is very limited. In response to this demand a special collection of books and periodicals about reminiscence activities has been built up as part of the Oral History Collection which also includes a small selection of commercially available 'Recall' tape slide packs. A reading list is available from the sixth floor.

There was, however still a need for locally produced packs which could be borrowed. This need has now been satisfied by the series of Memory Packs designed by the Memory Bank.

The Memory Bank grew out of a 'Looking Back' project set up by Age Concern in Bradford. It is a group of people with an interest in local history and reminiscence, who work together to encourage and stimulate interest in these subjects. It was established for the purposes of life long learning and to promote the welfare of older people in particular. Its aims are to develop a collection of materials suitable for use in reminiscence work, to encourage and support the setting up of local memory groups and to provide opportunities for the exchange of information and skills amongst those involved in local history and reminiscence work.

The packs are based on the oral history cassettes produced by Bradford Heritage Recording Unit from the huge archive of oral history interviews conducted in the 1980's. Each pack includes a cassette recording of personal recollections plus a variety of historical items which can be handled, felt, touched and smelled and are designed to stir memories and provoke a reaction even in people whose eye sight or hearing is not too good. The different packs remind us of 'schooldays' with old slates and plimsolls, 'When we were young' courting days with lavendar water and pearls, 'Shopping' with old money and shop bills and 'On the home front' with ration books, dolly blue and donkey stones!

The packs may be borrowed from either Age Concern, Bradford & District, 19-25 Sunbridge Road, Bradford, (in the C.V.S. building) or from the Local Studies Library, 6th Floor, Central Library, Princes Way, Bradford.

Although the Memory Bank is involved in many other activities in support of its aims the packs are a continuing success and in constant demand as this selection of comments from feedback forms from carers who have used them illustrates:

"Smells of carbolic and moth balls instantly revived memories. Each object brought forth further discussion... one member of the group is very negative so I was amazed to see her laughing and participating

"The nit comb caused hysterical laughter and memories of 'Nitty Nora'

"Smelly objects very useful as I had a few blind clients, everybody (age range 64-94) enjoyed the session, all joined in and it really brought everybody together.

"One of the group suffers dementia and can be awkward and withdrawn but on seeing the rolling pin she began to talk about how she would threaten her husband with her rolling pin and the proceeded to discuss her three marriages and she had us all laughing. She was like a different person.

"Our two sessions with the pack went extremely well so much so that we are now gathering our own items so that we can do this more often.

"Stimulated good conversation within the group. They all loved looking, feeling, smelling the objects."

Staff at the new stroke unit at St. Luke's Hospital and at Arden Lea, Marie Curie Cancer Centre in Ilkley have found that reminiscence and life review which the packs can encourage can help patients come to terms with the present.

The Memory Bank has good liaison with local history groups in the district and welcomes anyone with an interest in its aims to its meetings. Donations of small everyday objects are always appreciated. We are currently collecting items for two new packs, one for use with Asian elders and one for 'young older people' based on the period immediately after the Second World War, 1945-59.

As a result of the work that we do in encouraging memory sharing and the enormous interest shown in reminiscence locally both Janet Davidson (Bradford Industrial Museum) and myself realised that there is a growing need for training in 'How to run a reminiscence group'. We were very fortunate to find a tutor with many years personal experience of reminiscence in a variety of settings. Training days are currently held on a regular basis at the Industrial Museum and the Central Library, where people can find out how to develop reminiscence activities, how to avoid the pitfalls and share experiences and ideas. Attended by staff working in health and social services, libraries and museums plus members of the Memory Bank, voluntary workers and freelance activities organisers, the courses are always booked up well in advance.

1999 is the U.N. International Year of Older Persons. Opportunities in Bradford for memory sharing and enhancing the life of Bradford's older residents have never been better but we need to look to the future and build on what has already been achieved. Plans are already progressing to set up a Yorkshire and Humber regional reminiscence network, as part of the U.K. reminiscence network based at Age Exchange in London. An exploratory meeting held in the Central Library in September was well attended and demonstrated a need for further support and co-operation between people involved in reminiscence work in the region. In the meantime if you feel you would like to be involved or find out more about any of the above activities I'll be delighted to hear from you!

Carol Greenwood is Bradford's Local Studies Librarian.