Department of Health and Social Security, 1978–1979

Nick Alderton, Ian Breakwell, Hugh Davies, Bill Furlong, Mick Kemp, Rowan Matthews, Carmel Sammons and David Toop

Reminiscence Aids were conceived as audio-visual devices combining photographic slides and tape-recorded sound from the past, to be played to elderly people suffering from dementia and memory-loss in order to activate communication between generations, and as a mental exercise with positive therapeutic effects. The concept originated from an idea by Mick Kemp, a Principal Architect in the DHSS, in charge of research into accommodation for elderly people in need of care.

Following discussions with specialists in psycho-geriatric medicine and with APG artists, Kemp was encouraged to develop the idea through research, and set up an interdisciplinary team of clinical and artistic members. APG was commissioned, through sound artists Bill Furlong, Hugh Davies and David Toop to administer the arts aspects of this research project. Ian Breakwell, who was also involved, later left the team to concentrate on his studio work. After some promising test results, it was decided to structure the material into time periods, and extensive research in photo-archives and the BBC sound archive began. An effort was made to consult ‘elderly alert people’, and the project was introduced through several radio broadcasts and printed press, calling for elderly people to send in letters with their memories, to be used as a basis for the Reminiscence Aids audio-narrations.

Interviews in carehomes, 1978 © Carmel Sammons

The project was conceived as creative and artistic, and while based on discussion and improvisation, sometimes it combined conflicting positions. Ian Breakwell and environmental psychologist Rowan Matthews advocated non-linear and subjective archetypical memories as opposed to preconceived ideas and media-generated images of a past that was structured historically. Debates arose around the character of the archival material used, and also around the testing procedure of the product, which attempted to meet scientific standards. The completed Reminiscence Aids kits were promising enough to be further developed under supervision of team member Carmel Sammons, in order to be marketed through the charity Help the Aged under the brand name Recall, for use in hospitals and care homes.