Northern Lights: The importance of having close family atmosphere at Christmas

Dementia Champion Christine Green with mum Jean and family
Dementia Champion Christine Green with mum Jean and family
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Four more Saturdays until Christmas – dark nights and frosty mornings tell us it’s time to wrap up warm, spend time with the people we love and focus on the things that matter.

When I was a child, Christmas was the time when my Mum – single parent to seven children – would push the boat out. For her, it meant borrowing from friends and relying on family. To make ends meet, she would buy from a motley collection of clothes, toys and pointless household gadgets that arrived in a box each month. The idea was to sell the contents to neighbours for profit, though in reality we ended up with all kinds of random clothes and shoes and she ended up owing money she didn’t have.

I love the festive season, but the expectation to buy and make everything perfect – food, home, presents – can be overwhelming for parents who just want to make Christmas special for their kids. The pressure to borrow money, often at high cost, continues to ensnare families. In austerity Britain, it’s alright to tell us to consume less, live within our means, make do and mend, but it’s not that simple. For many families, Christmas can be the best of times and the worst of times.

It’s at times like this that families need places to have fun, talk and be together – a safe home-life is incredibly important but getting some fresh air, trying new things and meeting new people makes a real difference. Christmas is always fun in Sheffield’s museums: Arctic World at Weston Park Museum is transformed when Santa comes to town, and Kelham Island’s 25th Victorian Christmas Market is a chance to browse the work of Sheffield makers. There’s always something for everyone, and for all ages – from little ones who enjoy under-fives sessions to our oldest visitors.

When we started to plan our Christmas fundraising appeal, we knew straight away that it should be about supporting Sheffield’s families. I’m proud that we will be delivering a new project in 2018 which will explore the potential of museums to bring people together.

Today more and more people are living well with dementia in Sheffield. Our museums are in a unique position to support people living with dementia and their families and carers by using the city’s rich historic collections to inspire conversations and build bridges between the past and the present. In collaboration with Sheffield Industrial Museums, we’ll be delivering Dementia Friendly Museum and Gallery Cafés designed to bring people together in a supportive environment. Hosted across our venues, they’ll offer a chance to meet new friends and share memories and help to reduce feelings of isolation and develop confidence in using our public spaces.

My friend Frances Lavender, once described by Steve McClarence as ‘the songbird of the City Hall’, lived with dementia in the final years of her life. For decades, Frances volunteered at the museum, raised money for Greenpeace and sang in the Bach and Philharmonic choirs; she led the Christmas Carols at Bishops’ House too (this year’s are December 17). For her family and partner George, dementia was devastating. Yet Frances would become happier and calmer when talking about singing or remembering her trips around Europe with George.

Christine Green, a Museums Sheffield volunteer and Dementia Friend Champion, talks movingly about the impact dementia has had for her Mum, Jean. She describes symptoms including bad language, confusion and violence, but also a person who is full of love, laughter and sadness. She says, ‘Jean went to the seaside, had an ice cream, ate fish and chips and enjoyed a walk along the seafront. When she got home, she didn’t remember any of the activities but emotionally she was happy and content – she knew the day had been good. Dementia doesn’t rob us of our emotions; it is important to remember that there is more to a person than dementia’.

To raise money for the project Museums Sheffield is currently taking part in the Big Give Christmas Challenge – the UK’s largest online match funding campaign. We’re thrilled that Sheffield businesses Counter Context and Quality Context are supporting the appeal and are matching donations made online by the public. To support the appeal and see your donation doubled, please visit museums-sheffield.org.uk/biggive. The challenge is live now and continues until midday on Tuesday December 5. As Christine says, it will mean “that people living with dementia can visit the museums and galleries they have come to enjoy – and know that the day has been good”.