I was in the Midlands again yesterday, this time in Wednesbury. I was there to give a talk about dementia to the Older People’s Forum in the town. Twenty-four people attended, a mix of men and women. All were engaged with the subject, interested in checking their existing knowledge, keen to know how they could help people living with dementia who they knew.

Again, I was inspired. (I am often inspired). By meeting together socially and sharing a common political purpose, members of Agewell Forums are embracing a key to wellbeing in later life.

What else could they do (they wanted to know) to exercise their brains and fend off the ravages of dementia? Crosswords? Sudoku? Gardening? Knitting? Needlework? Dancing? “Yes” I said, “All of those things. Learning new skills, remaining socially active, a healthy diet and plenty of water, good sleep, regular exercise, no smoking and minimal consumption of alcohol: these are the lifestyle factors that help to reduce the risk of dementia. We cannot prevent it, but we can reduce the risk. What is good for the heart is good for the brain”.

I had a little bit of time to spare after the meeting. Virtually next door to the building in which we met is Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery. Keen to explore this facility as a potential resource for our work in the area, and feeling curious, I went in. It’s an impressive redbrick Victorian building. On entry, visitors are faced with a sweeping double staircase, with a reception area to the right. I was made to feel very welcome by the man on reception, he guided me to the different exhibitions and offered any further help that I might need, at any point.

I headed up the stairs to the main gallery, particularly eager to see the special exhibition about the comic artist Charlie Grigg, who was a local man, I discovered.

Before I reached the Charlie Grigg exhibition, I was side-tracked by two other displays.

First, I found myself admiring the ‘Community Wall’ – a selection of paintings in oil produced by Sandwell Museums Community Arts Groups, three arts groups that meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. The sign said, “The groups have taken part in a number of projects and enjoyed trips out to other venues and even a boat trip along the canal to draw outdoors”.

A variety of artwork was featured: portraits, seascapes, harbour scenes, gardens, wildlife, cats. Abstract and figurative. I chose my top selection: ‘Steam’ by Harry Phillips; ‘Ophelia’ by Phil Steckles; and the portrait of ‘Tolouse Lautrec’ by Bob Barnett.

From there I was guided into the ‘The Nostalgia Rooms’, a series of immersive spaces recreating the living experience of a previous time, the 1970s.

“We are hoping that this display brings back some memories and creates interesting talking points, which is why there are no labels on the objects. We are also hoping it’s a great insight into homes in the recent past to our younger visitors”.

This is well within my memory. Having been a teenager in this decade, I felt in very familiar territory. A bedroom, living room, kitchen, all assembled with the décor, adornments and gadgets of the moment. There was even a dressing up room with a full- length mirror, where you could try on 70s garments – and wigs – and take selfies against an atmospheric background.

The picture (above) of the living room, to me, was particularly evocative. It reminds me of my mother-in-law’s home (as it was) and is not dissimilar to my parents’ home now. (My Mum is 85 and my Dad is 88). My parents always preferred a more subtle floral design for their wallpaper, and a frieze, but in every other way, this room is a perfect match with their tastes. And my mother-in-law had those very same cushions!

Then I learned about Charlie Grigg.

For those who do not know – and I didn’t know – Charlie Grigg is famous for being the artist who drew the comic-strip Korky the Cat in The Dandy, from the 60s to the 80s; he also took on drawing Desperate Dan, when the original artist, Dudley Watkins, died. And when he retired from regular comics work in 1983, Charlie Grigg turned his hand to illustrating saucy seaside postcards for Bamforth. Humour of its time; nowadays these postcards are extremely collectable.

The exhibition, specifically curated for Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery, was full of wonderful artworks, sketches and vintage comics; plus, some lovely film footage of Grigg talking about his life and career as an artist. This is well worth a visit if you are local to the Black Country!

When I got home last night I read up some more information about Charlie Grigg. I discovered that he lived to the age of 97, dying only a few years ago in 2013. The obituary in the Telegraph revealed:

“In later life Grigg suffered from vascular disease which caused him to lose his short-term memory, though his longer-term memory was better. For his ninetieth birthday celebrations, he visited The Dandy offices, where he enjoyed looking back at original boards he had drawn 40 years before. He still remembered the trickiest parts of each page.

“He continued to enjoy himself and wrote down his life story, which he would read through regularly to help with his memory. For the same purpose he browsed his artwork from the 400 copies of The Dandy which he had kept - each image serving as an aide-memoire”.

(You can read the full obituary here)

So, my day went full circle. This passage in his obituary caused me to reflect that, in the face of dementia, Charlie Grigg took steps to preserve his cognitive capabilities and maintain quality and enjoyment in his life – in similar ways to the intentions of the older people’s group that I had spoken to that morning.

And there, right in the heart of Wednesbury is an ideal opportunity for people with dementia to engage with a meaningful activity. Sandwell Museums declare: “For many members the art groups are about meeting new people, trying new things and having a giggle, as well as developing new skills and trying something new”. The perfect way to live life fully with or without dementia.

I am so glad that I took time to visit Wednesbury Museum and Art Gallery, for many reasons, not least because I learned something new.

If you know of opportunities in your local area for people with dementia to take part in arts activities, please get in touch to let us know. We are keen to hear your stories, and to learn about your experiences of how activities can be meaningful for people living with dementia. You can contact me by email at askbarbara@unforgettable.org or by telephone at the Unforgettable office.