Critically-Acclaimed Play used in Ministerial Training

“Let me give you a piece of advice,” says the seated elderly man, blanket over his knees, jabbing the air with a shaky finger: “Never use a name; names can get you into hot water,” should you get them wrong. So, he explains, he says to all men who visit him in his care home, “Hello, mate,” and greets all women with, “Hello, dear.” He knows he struggles with his memory, and is sharing some of his coping strategies: “Oh, and questions, questions – they’re always asking you questions. But they’re tricks, tricks. But my trick is to pretend to be slightly deaf – which isn’t much of a trick, because I am! And then to give answers to the questions that are not entirely relevant, but will do. For instance: “Who is the President of the United States of America?” Answer: “I do like his wife!”” A little later he adds, “Oh, yes, and never use a name; names can get you into hot water …”

The speaker – tellingly, we never learn his name – is the creation of actor-playwright Trevor Smith in his one-man play, An Evening With Dementia. I saw this at the Edinburgh Fringe last August and was struck by how powerfully it speaks about the experience and needs of those suffering memory loss. It also seemed to me that it would be a really creative basis for a training event on a theme of ever-growing importance: with an aging population and increased life-expectancy, the church will face ever-greater demands in the pastoral care of dementia sufferers and their carers. I couldn’t think of a better way to open up this subject than through this poignant yet often humourous piece of theatre.

Trevor Smith agreed to perform his play on 29th September at an event in Durham which I planned as part of the Lindisfarne Partnership’s training programme for curates in the dioceses of Newcastle and Durham. On this occasion we also welcomed trainee Readers, Durham’s Authorised Pastoral Assistants, and other clergy and lay people in the dioceses involved in chaplaincy and pastoral care, and I invited a number of medical educators from the region to join us too.

About 130 gathered to see the play, and then share our experience, questions and insights about the challenges for pastoral care that were raised and explored. It was good to work together in a wider, inter-disciplinary group. I am grateful to Trevor and his producer Janet, and to Anne Marr and Rachel Lunney who gave brief inputs on the care of those with dementia.

Medical consultant Lawrence Kaplan of Great Ormond Street Hospital wrote about the potential of the play in a training context in a review in the British Medical Journal in May: “An Evening With Dementia can teach clinicians and non-clinicians alike about dementia in ways that I have rarely seen achieved in the classroom …. It enlightens, inspires, and, most importantly, teaches what people with advanced dementia might want others to understand if they could be the teacher.” Many who came to our event found that the play did just this.

We are growing more used to using film and video as part of our learning in the church; there are perhaps not many opportunities to use live theatre to do this, but I will certainly hope to do so again.

Rick Simpson, IME 4-7 Director (Curate Training)

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