ARU Magic Me - ARCH Project - Dare To Imagine

Full Report 35 From touch to gestures: Four years at Sherrell House In 2019, we were invited by Magic Me to be part of a programme linking arts organisations with residential care homes in Essex. For some time, we had been wanting to make a project on touch, and we’d been talking about the significance of touch for older people, many of whom have to deal on a daily basis with loneliness and isolation. So when Magic Me approached us with a ready-made opportunity to develop this idea, we jumped at the chance. After initial meetings and conversations between us, Magic Me, and Excelcare, we were paired with Sherrell House, a large home in Chigwell. We invited three dance artists – Akshay Sharma, Petra Söör and Kip Johnson – to be Associate Artists on the project and asked them to explore touch as a meaningful pathway to wellbeing, through their own dance practice. Our initial R&D phase took place in early 2020. Akshay, Petra and Kip spent five days and one night in the home. They spent time talking, observing and dancing with residents, relatives and staff to get a sense of the day-to-day rhythm of the home and understand how touch was already present in the activities offered and in staff/ resident relationships. However, we were quickly halted in our project by the global pandemic that stripped us of our ability to physically connect with one another. Throughout 2020 and 2021 we were unable to visit Sherrell House due to lockdown restrictions and the ongoing health crisis, which had a particularly extensive impact on care homes. So we began to question, “what gestures and invitations of touch can we offer each other at a time when touch is limited and disparaged?” In response to this question, our Associate Artists Akshay Sharma and Petra Söör designed a series of small art works, digital resources and activities for staff, relatives and residents to engage with in our absence. One of these artworks was a pamphlet designed by Akshay and Petra with Graphic Designer Fraser Muggeridge Studio. It was designed as an invitation to enter the world of touch by reading thoughts and stories on touch and performing short exercises to help staff, relatives and residents tune into their senses. The pamphlet was sent to the care home with accompanying materials to encourage greater creativity and a range of engagement. The pamphlet had multiple purposes: as a card to keep or give away to someone as a gift, or as a fold out poster that can be hung on a wall, or stand in a window sill. The back of the pamphlet was left blank as an open canvas for experimentation. The QR code on the first page of the pamphlet led to a voice recording of the whole contents. Voice recordings of instructional breathing and massage exercises were also made available. Akshay and Petra also created a short eight minute film to encourage calm, tactility and playfulness through the world of movement, sound and voice. The TV is a central focal point in the care home, and in the making of this film we questioned, “In what ways can we bring attention to touch and bring a little of the outdoors, indoors?” Whilst experiencing the film we encouraged staff and relatives to engage in touch-based activity, for example holding a leaf or paper flower, touching or holding someone’s hand. In April 2022 we finally returned to the care home in person. In the intervening months the residents and staff at Sherrell House had almost completely changed, most crucially the Care Home Manager and Lifestyle Coordinator, our main points of contact. Our staffing arrangements had also shifted. Kip was unable to continue with the project and our co-artistic directors had to take a