Susanna Howard is a writer, actor and theatre maker who founded arts and dementia charity Living Words. Susanna’s practice is enquiry driven and currently preoccupied with what it means to be an artist working in this field; what equality in communication looks like; and what the barriers to access are in supporting self-expression through the arts.
Please tell us about some of the work you have done to support, improve and contribute to the lives of, people with dementias?
I founded and now run the charity Living Words. Since 2007 we have run care home residencies - co-creating one-to-one with people experiencing a dementia, and leading workshop programmes with care home staff and relatives.
In response to the work that comes from these residencies, Living Words creates anthologies, events and performances, to challenge assumptions around dementia and communication.
What was your motivation for getting involved in the field of dementia?
Living Words came about following a traumatic period in my life that led to months and months of flow writing. Out of the feeling of having written my ‘self’ back into existence, I had the desire to work with language and individuals who may feel disconnected from the words inside themselves.
I didn’t have the thought ‘I want to work in the field of dementia’, but through a friend I met a woman called Catrin Jones, who then worked at Guys and St Thomas’ hospital, co-ordinating the arts and health programme there. She gave me the break I needed. I read what I could find out about arts and dementia and then started the work in an elderly care unit at St Thomas’. I remember on the first day, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of having stumbled upon my life’s work. The consultant running that ward is currently a trustee of Living Words.
What would you say has been your greatest achievement or highlight?
I think my greatest achievement has been my resilience. For a long time, working in this field left me a social pariah at artsy parties! Nowadays, thank goodness, consciousness has evolved to the point at which this work is a hot topic, but there have been times on this journey where only through sheer belligerence have I kept going, knowing the difference the work makes – for people living with dementias and artists!
This work has cost me all I have had and I have kept going though disbelief, lack of funds and other hardships, but it has been worth it. This is what it takes to birth something into the world.
Living Words has just received an Arts Council grant to train new writers in Folkestone, Kent. Also, within this project we will be working with the incredible London Contemporary Voices in care homes and showing work at Queen Elizabeth Hall and Folkestone Quarterhouse in November.
I am also working with Living Words associate artist Astrid Goldsmith, and an as yet to be announced, person living with a dementia on a graphic novel short story.
If you could change one thing now to improve the lives of people living with dementia, what would it be?
Information and access to groups led by people living with dementias – like Forget-Me-Nots and Sunshiners in Kent – as soon as you receive a diagnosis.