Running interactive and multi-sensory storytelling over Zoom.

I am SO delighted to see the return of “in person” storytelling!However, I do really love online events too. This project with Jewish Care, pushed the boundaries of what could be done virtually.We were working with seniors who had mild to moderate dementia for 20 consecutive Tuesdays in 2021.The brief was to engage the residents as completely as possible using all the senses and also to try and spark reminiscences and discussion.
Smell was a very important part of the project. I have previously written about smell and storytelling- read it here.Back in Jan 2021 I posted a huge pack of sensory props- toys, musical instruments, coffee beans, food flavouring, feathers and vintage buttons (and many more!)  to the facilitator. He also sourced easy-to-obtain or fresh items like growing herbs, a handful of grass or stones from the garden, hot black tea…
I told a different Jewish folktale every week, the Wooden Sword, The Rooster Prince, the tales of Chelm and many more.We used props like: herbs, unusual foods, fabrics, musical instruments, play doh. One of our participants was blind so it was especially important to have things to smell hear and touch.
 Format:We had three participants sitting at a table with a microphone so I could hear them.  There was a large screen so they could see and hear me clearly. We had one facilitator.We usually had around six or seven different props per story.“Lets start our story by thinking of a journey that you have been on. It could be a big journey or just a small journey like going to the shops.” (We discuss journeys and transport. Then…) “Joseph the merchant was on a journey, he was travelling home through the desert. It was so hot and dry and he was thirsty. Then he came to an oasis- what kind of trees do you think were at the oasis?” (we talk about trees) “There was also lots of lovely lush grass. Lets all handle some cut grass. What does it smell like? Have you got any seeds on any of your grasses?”Before each session I emailed the facilitator with a props list. Back at home I had an identical set of props. This was very important because…

…every time we got hands-on with something, we would share our impressions of it e.g. “Does it feel springy? It’s stronger than I expected” etc. When I didn’t have the props I fell out of synch with the participants. It was also harder to discuss things if I couldn’t feel or smell them myself.Choice of story:Finding so many suitable Jewish folktales wasnt easy.  I was tempted to “cheat” and adapt a couple of non-Jewish folktales… change a few names and settings to make them fit the others. Why not? After all, I thought, the participants were not familiar with any of the stories.  However when I tried an adapted story I noticed that participants were less interested in the plots and characters- although they still enjoyed the chat and sensory bits. So I decided to stick with authentically Jewish stories- a bit more difficult but definitely worth it! Fairly simple tales with a strong moral/twist worked best. Sometimes I would have to be quite creative about how I slotted in sensory elements!More thoughts:It was also vital to vary the questions and objects. Although the participants had a certain amount of dementia they remembered the stories very clearly week to week and wanted something completely new each time.It was a privilege getting to know them, and as we went on I found my choices influenced by the different characters and histories in our group. For example two of them had worked in “the rag trade” so I chose stories about sewing and clothes and asked quite specialist questions about lining coats and choosing buttons.Role of the facilitator:I was SO lucky to have a facilitator at the home who really “got” the project. He was very sensitive about relaying questions and answers and coaxing people to join in and have fun. He was also able to pick up on the rhythm of each story so that the props and discussion flowed and there was a fantastic to-and-fro of energy. This was a big part of the success of the project. Each session was 45 minutes and they flew by!Above all it was a shared experience, so precious during lockdown, I think that is captured in this lovely feedback.
“You have been one of the only new artists we’ve ventured to work with during lockdown!…Thanks for all your fantastic input and your wonderful storytelling. Your session has been a major highlight for participating residents who have really enjoyed the dramatic tales, and the opportunities to reminisce , laugh and to shine together.” -Activities Coordinator.

BIG thank you to Helen Preddy who suggested the project in the first place, Janice Galloway who made it happen and Tamer Ali who was a brilliant facilitator.