Brunelcare, Dementia Care Home: The Napkin Project, Participatory Art

Artist Deirdre Nelson and a resident with an embroidered napkin photo Jim Wileman

Creativity can be an inspiration for people living with dementia and we wanted to tell more people about how important that is.

We wanted to get people involved so they could see how powerful craft could be. We started with an everyday object, and with the help of people all over the country, transformed plain white squares of fabric into a source of inspiration for residents at Saffron Gardens dementia care home. The project has been featured in the Guardian Online.

The Napkin Project began when artist Deirdre Nelson was working with staff and residents at Saffron Gardens in Bristol. She noticed how important fabric was to the residents and how some of them would spend a long time smoothing a napkin, touching its edges or perhaps folding and refolding it.

A member of staff told her that one resident would join napkins together to carry her possessions around with her and that another used hers as a vase to hold flowers; in this way a napkin became more than just a napkin.

Plain napkins were purchased, and through the power of social media a band of willing volunteers was recruited to embroider them.

People from all over the UK took part, with more than 120 napkins being returned in just three months. The opportunity was available to all, regardless of experience. Participants have tweeted and blogged, work colleagues have spent lunch times stitching and generations of families have shared their sewing skills.

The project has given people time to reflect and think about much-loved family members with dementia.

A pop up exhibition was held before all 120 napkins were donated to Saffron Gardens at a celebration event.

Manager of Saffron Gardens Lin Feist, said:

“What has appealed to me most about the Napkin Project is what a fantastic reminiscence tool the napkins are. With them all being based around the theme of home and family, this can mean so many things to different people and evoke very different emotions. We plan to use them not only at meal times, but also have them placed around the home to act as conversation starters and to encourage different uses. They will hopefully also help family members engage with their loved ones and have a focused talking point which can become a lot harder when they have dementia. The bright and cheerful designs will add colour to the home and we look forward to putting them to use.”

Willis Newson believes that creative activities and the arts can be a powerful tool in ‘unlocking’ the ability of people with dementia to express themselves, enabling them to tell their stories, improve their self esteem and quality of life.

Working creatively is central to the theory of person-centered care. As an approach, it places the feelings and connections of the individual at the heart of everything. It values communication and interaction and helps to support a sense of personal identity. Recent Baring Foundation reports have been instrumental in communicating and sharing these ideas.

More information on the subject can be found on the Napkin Project Blog, where you will find links to all the connected social media, to resources around the subject of creative ageing and to information about the other Saffron Gardens artworks. A 5 minute film that tells the story of the project in the words of those who took part can also be found on the blog.