Last week I was involved in facilitating a support group session for people living with young onset dementia and family caregivers, with my colleague and friend, Charlotte Overton-Hart. Charlotte is a bibliotherapist – which means that she loves stories and poetry. She has established a social enterprise called ‘Story Chaplain’.

Charlotte had brought along some sawn-off sections of a tree branch for the group to examine. The wood was freshly cut, gathered by Charlotte’s Mum who had encountered a woodcutter on her morning walk the day before. Knowing that Charlotte had this activity in mind for the support group, Charlotte’s Mum had engaged the woodcutter in conversation about her daughter’s work, and her intention to use wood as the focus for an activity with people living with dementia. The woodcutter had been pleased to help.

The wood pieces were distributed, there was sufficient for one each. Charlotte invited the group to explore the feel and smell of the freshly cut wood: the group noted that the wood had a plant-like odour. The bark edges were rough and gritty. The cut surfaces were ridged with lines caused by the action of the saw, almost like a sunburst overlaying the concentric rings. “It looks quite like a shell” someone observed. Group members tried counting the rings to age the branch: between 9 and 13 was the consensus!

There were questions: What kind of tree had the wood come from? What was the intended use for the sawn-off branches? Was the whole tree being chopped down (it was a shame that it had to die)? Or was the tree simply being pruned, to enable it to flourish with fresh growth?

Charlotte read ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin to the group:

The Trees
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh

Philip Larkin 1967

The group wondered whether this is a sad poem, or hopeful? With a feeling of Spring in the air, was this a time for optimism?

We thought about what signs of Spring we had seen: daffodils, snowdrops, bluebells, crocuses, birdsong, sunnier weather. Soon the clocks will change and the evenings will be lighter. We looked again at our wood pieces as we thought about how trees do, indeed, have a “yearly trick of looking new” and how this is “written down in rings of grain”. But why is ‘greenness' a kind of grief we wondered?

Charlotte then led us in an activity of leaf rubbing – leaves of huge variety that she had picked on her journey to the venue. Using charcoal sticks and coloured pencils, on plain white paper and tracing paper, everyone had a go.

‘The trick is to follow the vein of the leaf with your finger” said one group member. This turned out to be the best technique and everyone agreed that ivy leaves were great for leaf rubbing.

With leaf shapes on paper, Charlotte then invited us to ‘turn over a new leaf’ as we think about Spring.

Responses were diverse: some people wrote words, others drew images.

In the spirit of bibliotherapy, one group member turned over his ‘new leaf’ with a rhyme:

Spring is sprung
And the bird is on the wing.
But that’s absurd!
The wing is on the bird.

The session was topped and tailed with live guitar music to which we sang along – I Can See Clearly Now, Blowin’ in the Wind and Love Me Tender - then everyone took their leaf rubbings, wood pieces and ‘new leaves’ home.

This was an activity session designed for people living with young onset dementia, but it made me think – in reality, this was a session for everyone: inclusive, honest, spiritual and uplifting. I had a lovely afternoon.

If you would like to find out more about the availability of support groups for caregivers and people living with dementia, please do get in touch with me: askbarbara@unforgettable.org

We are always keen to learn about activities that engage and inspire people. Please do share your ideas and suggestions with us at Unforgettable.

(You can also view a beautiful animation of Philip Larkin's The Trees poem here)