bold generations – a bold mini commission with Alec Thompson-Miller
Blog 2: Threads of co-design
I am writing this 2nd blog telling the story of the intergenerational journey of the bold generations mini commission in a youth hostel near Aberfeldy. It’s snowing outside, and I am surrounded by an incredible community of song leaders from all around Scotland and beyond, all of whom are so passionate about celebrating the joy of coming together across the generations through song, passing on heritage and helping to hold the space for the nurturing of a future full of hope, positive action, and togetherness.
I’ve decided to write in the evening accompanied by the happy hubbub of voices and joyous music-making with my feet tapping away while I write. I think best when I’m moving and breathing to a steady beat and listening to music and/or making music in my head or out loud, so this was an ideal space to let my creative energies flow. Thank-you so much to this wonderful group of people for your inspiration, and to Magdalena, Lorna and the whole bold team for your patience, kindness, and encouragement during this creative process.
How do I paint a clear picture of this bold mini commission? It ran from September to December 2022 at Kingswood Day Centre in Aberdeen, bringing together 8-12 residents living with dementia and 8 children aged 9-10 from Heathryburn Primary School. Simply, this project is about community, friendships across generations and celebrating the power of intergenerational relationships. Making space for everyone’s voice to be heard, and enabling a more inclusive and compassionate coming-together of people touched by dementia in different ways.
The key themes of reflection that emerged in the past 3 months since the project ended centre around the heartwood theme: Threads of co-design. Always starting where each person is at. I am absolutely fascinated by the almost invisible processes of how to foster a community space in which everyone feels able to actively take part in guiding the organic flow of the collective work. bold generations has teased out some of the important practical threads of co-design.
The walks to and from Kingswood
These were crucial moments of connection for the children and myself. They provided many opportunities to chat; to gradually help them build confidence speaking with their peers and I, which acted as confidence bridge-building opportunities when we were engaging in conversation at Kingswood. To encourage them to share activity ideas; and to gently discuss how each session went on the walk back to school. Furthermore, by asking the children to suggest walking routes each week, they felt an increasing sense of independence and ownership of the walks, and they enjoyed giving their own names to certain landmarks such as ‘Arrow Island’ for a half-way road crossing point.
Observation, playful curiosity and open-hearted listening/connection
By paying close, loving attention to the small things, you can use what you learn about each person/moment as invitations to connect, guidance for next steps, and seeds for future collective endeavours. This way of being is especially important when people don’t feel ready/aren’t able to take an active/direct role in co-designing the community space. These small and vital ingredients can include accurately learning someone’s name; commenting positively on what someone’s wearing such as those famous rainbow boots. The stories they share; who/what they gravitate towards; the hobbies they enjoy/enjoyed; food they like/what allergies they have; how they move about the room. How they communicate and interact like preferring someone sitting on their left side due to being deaf in their right ear. The themes of communication that encourage each person to smile and laugh or one of our Kingswood friends enjoying friendly banter about how she likes to cheat when playing competitive games and one of the children always arriving with a new joke to share that was practiced on the walk up.
The more we can fill ourselves up with love for the people in front of us in the here and now and on a regular basis, the deeper our empowering impacts can become. This photo is such an important symbol of this project. The two people in the picture are amongst the quietest in the group; the child started the project incredibly shy, and spoke very quietly, while the adult struggled to interact with others due to being deaf in one ear, difficulty with his vision, and living with dementia. While playing a game of tin bingo, they began to speak quietly to each other during the game, and the adult commented at the end that the child ‘is a fine chap.’ For the child, this experience was a step towards increasing self-confidence, leading to him having the courage to team up with another Kingswood friend the following week. On the walks to and from Kingswood he is now beginning to initiate conversations with me instead of me always taking the lead, and his voice is now a bit louder and stronger in presence. For the adult in the picture, he is starting to connect more regularly with the children in the group, smiling and laughing more, and helping to sustain conversations over a longer period.
Being prepared to go with the flow
The thread, ‘Being prepared to go with the flow’, is deeply connected with the ethos of starting where each person is at; it’s not about fitting the people to the activities/routines, but the other way around. The creative directions we take on each visit depend upon suggestions made by the children on the walk to Kingswood or by the group during an afternoon. If we arrive, and our Kingswood friends are busy with an activity, we join in whether it be a quiz, group card game or hangman. If there’s a seasonal celebration coming up such as Halloween or Christmas, we plan our activities around this theme for the following week. But best of all is when we discover a hidden talent amongst one of our Kingswood friends, and weave this into our plan. One of our friends used to play accordion in a band, so Paulene and I explored the possibility of borrowing one for him to play. Not only did he play ‘Amazing Grace’ to a rapt audience at Kingswood, but when he visited Hazlehead Academy’s Dementia Café recently, he was able to have another go on a music pupil’s instrument.
Gratitude for the Kingswood/Heathryburn Staff teams
One of the key ingredients of sustaining a positive, co-design, intergenerational space is a nurturing team around the group, and I cannot praise the Kingswood/Heathryburn Staff teams enough. Our intergenerational projects at Kingswood are 6 years old this week, and one of the main reasons behind their enduring success is the incredible support from everyone involved. The Kingswood staff welcome the children with open arms, and go above and beyond to help them connect with our Kingswood friends, and foster their inner confidence in general. This same caring energy is at the heart of their relationships with the community members as well, and it’s been very uplifting to see how well the Modern Apprentices from Bon Accord Care are growing into their roles – fills me with hope for the future. Heathryburn staff are instrumental in supporting these and are regularly in communication about how the children are doing, and how to develop the group.
It’s important to remember that co-design project partners don’t just involve the immediate group/staff; the more we expand our awareness and horizons, the more we can build bridges with new community partners from further afield and broader issues of which we are a part. I found out in October that Age Scotland were undertaking a new National Dementia Strategy Engagement Tour around Scotland, led by Maxine, Alice and Colm, and they kindly agreed to include our bold generations project on their tour. It was lovely to welcome them to Kingswood in November, and we explored different themes such as ‘What makes somewhere a great place to live for older people?’ through a variety of engaging intergenerational activities. Not only is Maxine part of the BOLD community, but this intergenerational experience helped inspire her to consider this approach more in the future. Here are some of her reflections:
‘Just blown away by the natural bonds the children and adults have built. There were hilarious and silly moments, with children doing exactly as they should do, speaking their minds and being kids! To my surprise, the adults loved it; they don’t want to be shielded from fun and giggles!’
‘Even looking at the posters we made in more detail about our ‘ideal’ community, it reflects a lot of what we’ve been hearing. The need for social stimulation, connection, animals, sports, hobbies, and of course donuts! Sparks an idea re. A Kid’s National Dementia Strategy!’
Thank-you very much for taking the time to read these reflections, and if you have any queries about any of the above, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 07422 575711. Until next time!