Marie Bilodeau has been leading storytelling workshops with seniors who have dementia at the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre day program. Her Art Place project has changed a fair bit over the last few months so we sat down to find out what she has learned and where it is going.
How are you finding your workshops so far?
It is super interesting because they are not going the way I thought they would because of the audience, but it is taking on a shape of its own which is amazing to experience. My plan originally was to work with the group to create a story together, either written or verbally told. If the group was connected I thought might work together to create a group story with a narrative thread. The realities of my audience have really shifted the direction though. Because they have early onset dementia, it is difficult to get to them to tell me a narrative story at all. Some of them are interested in talking but a lot of them aren’t engaging as much. So instead of working with them to help me build a story, I am letting them guide the story through their reactions and finding touch points that link their points of interest. It keeps taking twists and turns I didn’t expect. I feel more like the pupil than the teacher.
How did you realise that guiding the story would work better?
At the beginning I would try to push to get answers or to even get them working, with character development, to talk about someone they know or that find inspiring, but I found that if I even push that, it’s hard for them. At one point, one of them actually said: “We are used to having people come talk to us, and tell us things. We like to listen, we love to listen.” And I realised, that is part of their participation, that is how they like to participate; they listen and provide feedback I can’t impose on them and ask them to do something is difficult. That would be unfair towards them.
What does a typical workshop look like?
When I go in I tell a personal story and afterwards I ask them questions to see if they have anything to contribute. Often one or another of them will share their own story. This has been working well, but as soon as that well is dry and nobody else has anything to share that’s it, I have to tell another story to get another story from them. I can’t just give them instructions to tell a story. What I am doing here is letting their mind play, which goes back to the literature on how we react to story, and why storytelling and fiction have such a good vibe with people, it gives us time to imagine and connect.
You are working with two different groups. What differences have you noticed?
I get very different things from each group. The guys, the less advanced, aren’t always as responsive, but it changes week to week. They have a bit more anger because they know what is happening to them. The mixed gender group is more advanced and has more acceptance for their situation. They have their life details on the back of cards and some are so advanced some of them don’t even talk, they just nod, but they are a very warm group. Last time I went there I actually got them to engage a lot, they were sharing stories about freighter ships and travel and I could really glean their personality when they talked about how they acted back then. What is strange is noticing the ones in my less advanced group become more advanced. Some of the chattier people don’t recognise me the next week. I try to bring up some of the topics we used to talk about but it’s just not there. Seeing these changes is hard because we don’t often like to confront the reality of memory loss, but this puts it into focus which I think is important.
What is the most surprising thing you have learned so far?
Honestly, sometimes art just happens. As a writer and storyteller I work towards deadlines. I am pushing the work out and it has an end product – a novel in a certain genre, a story for an event with a theme – but this has reminded me that art needs time and space to breathe and be encouraged, to become what it can be. Does it come down to what we try to connect or what naturally occurs? It is fascinating to see how people respond to art as an activity.
How has it been working with the staff at the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre?
The centre has been brilliant. They really care about their participants and have been warm and welcoming to me. They have provided me with a great deal of support and have taken the time to talk with me and give me some ideas about how to run the workshops. There is always someone in the room so I get immediate feedback. If I am trying something different, I can look at them and they will give me enough feedback to let me know if I am heading in the right direction for the participants.
Do you have an idea of what the final project will look like?
I am a little over halfway through now and I am trying to visualise and plan where we are going to end up. I have flashes of it, and I think it will be an audio presentation and will have a visual component to it but I am not sure what it will be yet. It is tricky though, if I come out with a recording device and they forget that I mentioned I was going to do it, it distracts them. You don’t want to derail them. Last week we sat in a circle and it worked very well so next time I am going to try and place the recorder in the centre of the circle and see if that works.
Visit Marie Bilodeau’s artist page for interviews and blogs about her arts project with the Eastern Ottawa Resource Centre. Follow ArtPlace on Facebook and Twitter for updates about what our other 2016-2017 Art Place artists are doing.