Time capsules from the past are being used by an adult education scheme to inspire the elderly. Neil Levis reports
BABS Stebbeds' 83rd Christmas was not happy. She fell after suffering a stroke and fractured her hip - an injury which ended her ballroom dancing days.
She and her husband had won many championships as professional dancers. But now she was unable to move about. She said that she feared the rest of her life would be lonely, and that she would spend her days sitting at her front window watching the world go by.
"I was devastated," she says. "On modern estates, neighbours don't pop in to to see you and if you don't go out, your friends tend to neglect you. I felt terribly isolated." But five years on, Babs is enjoying an active life once more, thanks to Norfolk adult education service's living memory project. Her contact with the scheme began after social workers, who assessed her for home support, suggested she attend reminiscence therapy classes.
"At the first meeting, I knew I belonged," says Babs. "We talked about old times and memories of our earlier lives. It had such meaning for me. I regained my confidence and my life has been turned round again."
Reminiscence therapy was first developed as an aid to sufferers of dementia: by exercising their long-term memory, it helped to stabilise some of their fading short-term thoughts. But the therapy is now increasingly used to revitalise other vulnerable pensioners who are isolated, bereaved or depressed.
They meet every two weeks. Tutors bring along old household utensils to stimulate discussions. Pick an elderly man known for his flowery language, stick a chamber pot in his hands, and the conversation is guaranteed to be lively.
At the meetings, people can also sign up for other courses, and Babs now attends painting classes as well.
Isolation is a common problem in rural Norfolk, where 43 per cent of the population is over 50.
"For women, the problems can be more acute because many don't drive," says Margaret Plummer, the living memory project manager. "The county has an idyllic image but sometimes the transport links leave a lot to be desired."
The local authority has adapted three rooms for reminiscence work and has put together 28 memory boxes which can be taken out to groups in village halls or used for one-to-one sessions with dementia sufferers in their homes.
Sheila Hawkes regularly takes therapy sessions at Northfield House in Norwich. "It is better than a facelift for many," says Ms Hawkes. "It makes them smile. The work is fantastic for rebuilding their confidence."
One of her regular clients is Jesse Horten, 76, a former sailor who had both legs amputated. Despite his disability he helped to convert a room at Northfield into a permanent reminiscence therapy centre. He helps to raise money to support the service by making rag rugs, a skill he learned during his days at sea.
He was surprised to find that the rugs on sale for pound;7 would sell for pound;40 in craft shops. He was so enthusiastic to find materials that he cut up his own trousers. "What do I need them for?" he would say. "I've got no legs."
As well as reminiscence therapy, the authority gets teenagers from colleges and schools to visit old people's homes to find out about the past from residents.
The living memory project has been recognised by the Department for Education and Skills. The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, which advises the department, has commended Norfolk's work with the elderly, describing it as "exemplary".
The project makes use of old newspaper cuttings, photographs and documents which might otherwise be left to gather dust in the loft. Now organisers are developing software to enable these resources to be stored electronically so that they can be shared among 25 groups around the county. There is also an audio link to catalogue music and record discussions, both contemporary and historical.
"Many people are anxious that we don't lose traces of the very strong accent and dialect which is gradually disappearing from the area," says Mrs Plummer. "Now we have a permanent record of it."
Many pensioners have been given a new lease of life by Norfolk's outreach work. John Bracy, a 79-year-old former teacher, was drawn in when he attended one of the county council's "It's never too late to learn" days.
He has since been heavily involved in preserving the maps and history of his home town of Sprowston.
"It's a real community archive," says Mr Bracy.
And for Babs Stebbeds, now 88, the future is as bright as ever.
"Memory lane has given me my life back - there is so much fun and laughter for us all," she says.