Old friend of diocese now stirring precious memories

By Simon Hart

Jimmy O'Donnell is explaining the power of music and song. The song in question is one he played at the very first of the interactive sensory reminiscence sessions that he organises for people living with dementia across the north-west.

"This lady couldn't finish a sentence because of her dementia but when I opened up this little music box and said, 'Does anybody know this one?' she sang every word perfectly. I said, 'What was that song?' and she named it – it was Lili Marlene. Everybody gave her a round of applause. This was a lady with dementia receiving affirmation and encouragement for what she could do, instead of the usual frustrations about what she couldn't do. I thought, 'There’s something in this that really touches people's stories and lives'."

To his many old friends across Liverpool Archdiocese, Jimmy – originally from St Mary's parish, Euxton – may be better known for other things. Over almost two decades he had two spells working at St Mary's Catholic High School in Leyland, first as a chaplain and then as an RE teacher. In between he spent time as a seminarian. In the early 1990s he was actively involved in residential and outreach youth work, based at Upholland and with the Archdiocesan Youth Pilgrimage to Lourdes.

What sowed the seeds for this reminiscence project was the experience of sitting listening to his father Michael's stories prior to his death. "I got six pages of his story," the 51-year-old remembers. "Less than a year later Dad had a major stroke and couldn't speak. He died a couple of months later and we had these pages that were pure gold to the family. My rationale behind the project is to encourage people to do what I did and more. I wish I'd got six hundred pages."

The impact of dementia on an aunt was another factor in the eventual leap of faith that Jimmy, now living in Blackpool, took last summer as he left his teaching job and began dedicating much of his time to visiting care homes and day centres to work with people living with dementia.

"I take along a selection of old objects and prepare a presentation with a PowerPoint projector and bring some old 78 RPM records and take them on a reminiscence journey. Often the senses can take us into powerful parts of our life experiences – a smell can take us back somewhere or music or something people can see or touch. I've got over a thousand objects from the 20th century. The biggest is an old tin bath and the smallest a farthing coin." His old wind-up gramophone proves particularly useful for games of 'Name That Tune'.

Jimmy's other focus is 'Sharing Precious Memories', whereby he visits schools and parishes and encourages others to follow his lead, explaining to them "the power of reminiscence and challenging people to do something wonderful about it".

He adds: "I was in a school a few weeks ago speaking to pupils. I told them that those six pages I'd got before my dad died became as precious as pure gold and you can do the same with older relatives who'll love the fact you're valuing their stories. There are so many people who regret not spending time with older relatives. When I got back a month later they'd made videos and PowerPoints and one little girl even brought in her great-granny's clogs that she wore as a child." Precious memories indeed.

• For more information about Jimmy’s work, visit www.lancashirememories.com or call 07761 071696.