A Derbyshire pottery group is making a difference for local people affected by dementia.
‘I’d never done any pottery before, but it’s my life now,’ says carer Mick Smith. ‘It’s all come from this really.’
Mick is a member of the Wabi Sabi Pottery Group, held weekly at the Derbyshire Eco Centre.
Launched in 2014 by adult education services in Derbyshire with support from Alzheimer’s Society, the sessions give people affected by dementia the opportunity to develop new skills and socialise with others facing similar challenges.
‘We wanted to do something to reduce isolation,’ says Sue Mulroy, the adult education tutor, potter and qualified art therapist who runs the group. ‘I’m a real believer in peer support through creating a community where people understand each other’s experiences.’
Sue feels the group is ideal for people living with dementia.
‘They’re able to learn new skills through body memory, where the brain isn’t so important,’ she says. ‘People with dementia often learn to throw pots more easily, maybe because they’ve lost the critical part of the brain that tells them they can’t do it.’
Members can also benefit from the opportunity to think differently about their situation.
‘I’ve always said the group is about loss and adjustment, because dementia is a progressive illness,’ says Sue.
The sessions are designed so that everyone can feel involved, even if their dementia is more progressed.
‘One lady who taps a stick as communication also uses the movement to decorate the clay,’ says Sue. ‘Even watching me pack the kiln can help someone feel involved.
Group members are busy working on their respective projects, each of which is at a different stage of the pottery process.
Ian Emslie, 70, was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia in 2010. He has been attending the group for the past five years with his wife Lesley.
Today, Ian is putting the finishing touches to a wall planter before beginning work on another with fresh clay.
‘We started off simple then progressed to making more intricate things,’ he says.
‘I get really absorbed and time passes so quickly,’ says Ian.
‘I feel it’s really worthwhile, it's really good. I like the feel of the clay, it feels very tactile.
A bowl that Ian made is waiting in the cupboard, ready to be painted.
‘I’m going to try different texture paint,’ he says. ‘We always experiment with colour and different textures.
‘I get really absorbed and time passes so quickly.’
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Carol Hill has been throwing pots on the wheel – the process of shaping the clay as it turns – before switching to moulding pieces with her hands.
‘I know it sounds silly but I always say the clay talks to me. With a lump of clay, it’s surprising what you can turn out,’ she says. ‘I take my time and gather my thoughts.’
Diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia around six years ago, 61-year old Carol attends the group with her husband Chris.
‘You meet other people with similar problems,’ she says. ‘It’s interesting talking to them about what they used to do with their lives.
‘We’re all friends and all accept each other for what we are.’
Carol says the sessions take place in a supportive environment.
‘You share your skills. If someone is struggling, we say, “Why don’t you try doing it this way?” and vice versa.’
Being around other people while picking up new skills feeds into Carol’s positive outlook.
‘I tell people I’ve got dementia, I’m not ashamed of it,’ she says. ‘You get on with life – life is for living. Don’t give up, that’s my theory.’
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the group has been Mick. He cares for his wife Carol, who was diagnosed with vascular dementia eight years ago.
‘I don’t know how life would be without it,’ he says. ‘You can actually live with the difficulties of dementia.’
Carol is being supported by volunteer Jennifer to make a large pinch pot.
‘Carol loves it here – she makes pinch pots with her fingernails,’ says Mick, who is modelling a clay hare.
The couple have been attending the sessions for the past four years.
‘If there’s been a bright spark that’s come out of the dementia, it’s this group,’ says Mick.
‘I find the group beautiful really,’ he says. ‘The carers lose their soulmate, the person they loved and married. The people who understand it best are those who live with it.
‘If there’s been a bright spark that’s come out of the dementia, it’s this group. They’re lovely people and Sue is such an inspiration to us all.’
Mick has even turned a room at home into his own full-scale pottery, where group members meet to do additional work.
‘It’s just something you can sit and do, and lose yourself,’ he says. ‘The end product isn’t that important, it’s the journey doing it.
‘You can lose yourself in the pottery – it makes life bearable.’