Pam's theatre company is aid for sufferers of dementia


DEMENTIA is one of the scourges of our time. The role of reminiscence in the treatment of the disease is now widely accepted.

One of the pioneers in that field is Welsh-born and Manchester-reared Pam Schweitzer.

Pam, who was awarded a National Dementia Care Lifetime Achievement award in 2014 and also gained an MBE for her work, began pioneering a unique form of creative reminiscence to help the elderly way back in the 1980s.

Multi-talented Pam first studied singing at the Royal Northern College of Music.

She told me: "My first singing engagement was at a Manchester Friends of the Hebrew University ball when I was only about 17, singing Hebrew and folk songs."

Pam, who was born in Ross-on-Sea at the end of the war when her father, solicitor Ralph Aubrey, was working for the Ministry of Food in Llandudno, and then went with her family to live in Cheshire, read English literature, theatre and drama at the newly-establish University of East Anglia and then theatre directing at Bristol University.

Married to architect Alex, she taught theatre and drama in schools and colleges in London and wrote theatre scripts.

While she was employed as an education officer for a London Task Force, she developed an interest in older people and their stories.

She said: "My job was to enable school children and older people to work together on projects. When I started listening to older people's memories and stories of their lives I thought what good theatre these stories would make."

Pam used her drama skills to make performances around the lives of these old people.

She said: "For example, a group of 16-17 year-old A-level drama students listened to the stories of a group of very old people in a sheltered housing unit about what life was like when they were 16.

"The girls were surprised to hear how the old people had started work at 14 and given most of their earnings to their mothers to help with the family income.

"They also got to know the music the old people liked. Their show was so good and so appreciated by the old people that they all got A grades in their A-levels."

With this experience behind her, Pam decided to form her own company, Age Exchange Theatre, which brought youngsters to perform plays based on the lives of old people in the places where they lived or met, like care homes and day centres.

Pam said: "These performances were unique because they were not mainly in theatres. They went to where the people were.

"After the performances the old people discussed their own memories which had been stimulated by the shows. Every show had a book of stories. We left the books behind for people to read the stories and to start to tell their own stories to each other."

When the Age Exchange Theatre began in 1982 with local authority funding, Pam said: "It was a very new idea to make theatre out of memories. We used the actual words of the interviews to make the script."

In 1986, Pam brought one of her shows, which was based on memories of the Jewish East End to perform in Manchester's Nicky Alliance Day Centre, Heathlands Village Care Home and the Jewish Museum, as well as to Jewish communities throughout Britain.

She then progressed to produce shows based on the memories of ethnic minorities, such as Caribbean, Indian and Irish.

The latter was of particular interest to Pam, who had been cared for as a child by an Irish maid to whom she had been very devoted.

More recently, Pam began to specialise in working with dementia sufferers. In 1992, she set up the European Reminiscence Network which trains people to run reminiscence groups in 12 European countries.

She told me: "It is now a big part of my work. I am 70 and still doing it. We have groups of about 10 families of dementia sufferers and their families who meet regularly and retrace their lives together in the group.

"They get to meet new people and share their stories.

"The idea is that they think about all the things they have done in their lives and that they are still the same person as they always were, despite their present condition.

"It has a very dramatic effect on the sufferers, very enlivening. It is a creative form of reminiscence, using drama, singing and dancing, handling objects, sharing memories and drawing."

Pam has just run a partnership training scheme with European countries, including Finland, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia and is starting a new project with Greece and Germany.

On top of all that, Pam still teaches at the University of Greenwich, where she has just put on a show with old people from the local area.

"The youngest performer was 82 and the eldest 98," she said. "They had never performed before. It was about their experiences of living through the war, either as evacuees or as young mothers and workers.

"They told me and one another their stories and then played them out using a script based mainly on their own words. They performed very well for 100 people. It was very demanding, but they did a wonderful job."

Appropriately, Pam's own mother, Barbara Aubrey, of Hale, Cheshire, is 100 and in full possession of her mental faculties.

And Pam's children have inherited their mother's artistic talents with daughter Dora a leading theatre designer and son David a composer who provides music for children's television shows.

Pam added: "I am lucky to have my six grandchildren living nearby."

© 2016 Jewish Telegraph