Memories of childhood play role in helping London’s elderly Irish

London Letter: sometimes it is the simple things that can spark memories

Roddy Doyle at the Ireland Fund’ss annual conference at which he received the fund’s annual literary award. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Roddy Doyle at the Ireland Fund’ss annual conference at which he received the fund’s annual literary award. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland.

Sat, Jun 22, 2013, 01:00

Sods of turf, camphorated oil, or the sight and smell of an old oil lamp can evoke memories of home for a generation of elderly Irish emigrants living in London, now suffering some form of dementia or memory loss.

Each month, the small group – known as Happy Days Reminiscence – meet in Bexley in East London. “We have time to listen, it gives them confidence. If they have trouble with finding a word, then we will wait,” says Dublin-born Eileen Taylor.

Happy Days
The seeds for Happy Days’ creation came from an Ireland Fund of Great Britain grant three years ago. “The money was vital, absolutely vital: it covered the start-up costs and the first year’s operations,” said Ellen Stafford, the director of the Woolwich-based Irish Community Services.

The Woolwich organisation was set up in the 1980s during “a time when a lot of Irish denied, or hid their nationality” because of IRA bombings that saw them “being spat at, abused, or refused service in shops”, Taylor said.

Today, the problems of the Troubles have gone, but many of those who came in the 1950s and 1960s are now ageing, and beginning in some cases to suffer from dementia, bringing new troubles.

“Dementia care has to be culturally sensitive, because often, or sometimes the people concerned can only remember the past. That can be quite difficult to get through to the services here,” Taylor said.

Sometimes, the problems can be just with language, she says. “The fact that we use a double negative: ‘You wouldn’t be good enough to get my cardigan’, for instance. Often, people won’t go to the trouble of finding out what was meant, if they didn’t understand it the first time,” she said.

Bad health
“Many of the elderly Irish can be in bad health, or suffering from the effects of bad working conditions down the years. But they won’t ask for anything. Sometimes it’s pride, a sense of ‘We’ll manage’, or that they don’t know what it is that they are entitled to,” she said.

Items such as the sod of turf passed from hand to hand around a table can trigger memories of days spent in the bog, or going to school with one in the bag for the fire during the day, Taylor said.

“Sometimes, it is the simple things that can spark memories that have been forgotten for decades, for instance,” she said.

Dementia sufferers tend to lose much of their sense of smell, but it’s like there is a memory buried deep in the brain. Camphorated oil, once used commonly to ease the effects of colds and flus, is one such trigger. “For many, it is a happy memory of their mother rubbing in the oil and giving them a cuddle at the same time, even if they were then sick,” said Taylor.

However, Happy Days Reminiscence seeks to avoid provoking memories that will distress members of the group. “This isn’t deep therapy, so we have to be very careful about that. This is about engaging people socially, not dragging up stuff that will cause pain,” she said.