A Conversation with the Dementia Friendly St Andrews Society

Discussing the topic of ‘mental health’ can often be uncomfortable for many people, with decades of stigma and preconceived notions attached.  Dementia in particular can seem like an issue that is a bit removed from university life, as it rarely affects our demographic.  In an effort to demystify dementia and contextualise it within the community of St Andrews, we sat down with Chloe Stenson, founder of the Dementia Friendly St Andrews Society to find out a little more about their work and their upcoming fashion show: Wardrobe Stories.

Can you tell us more about Dementia Friendly?

Dementia Friendly St Andrews is a branch of the University Charity set up by Dr. Maggie Ellis (Dementia Fellow at the university). Her approach to dementia emphasises what remains rather than what is lost and considers how to create a positive experience for people living with dementia and their caregivers. She has formed the Dementia Alliance who aim to educate all sectors of the community about dementia and about how to create a dementia-friendly environment.

What urged you to set up the society?

I came back from a year studying abroad feeling disconnected from St Andrews. In Semester 1, I took Maggie’s Psychology of Dementia module and she asked for volunteers. I was passionate about the cause, mostly as a result of taking the module and learning more about dementia. It was also a perfect opportunity to make a positive contribution to both the student and local community. That is why I was motivated, not just to volunteer on a one-off project, but to found a society giving the charity an ongoing base of student support.

What made you decide to put on a vintage fashion show as a fundraising event?

The fashion show was Maggie’s idea and we are organising it in collaboration with the Dementia Alliance. It is important to the charity to host events which raise funds but also embody the values of the cause. The show is open to the whole community and by showing vintage clothes we can directly involve people living with dementia in St Andrews by showcasing items that they used to wear and telling their stories.

Tell us a little bit more about the fashion show. What will set it apart from the other shows in St Andrews?

One of my concerns is that people will think “not another fashion show” but this event is incomparable to the other student-run fashion shows. Firstly, the tickets are only going to cost £3 because we want to encourage as many people as possible to come along, allowing us to raise more awareness for the initiative. Dementia Friendly St Andrews is new, so raising awareness is just as important as raising funds (although we do hope that people will realise the importance of the cause and donate more on the night!). Secondly, the focus is not really on the clothes, but on the memories that are attached to them. We will be pausing to tell the stories of the people who once wore the clothes. Most of the models will be wearing outfits borrowed from older family members and the stories that have emerged have been really touching. Some of the clothes were originally worn by people who are now living with dementia. A key issue I have become more aware of since taking Maggie’s module is the fact that the label ‘dementia’ can lead to people feeling like their personhood is ignored. This show, on the other hand, celebrates the colourful lives of the people who originally wore the clothes.

The show will also include children from Greyfriars Primary School, again wearing clothes borrowed from older family members. It has been great to get kids engaged with this issue and it should add a really special dimension to the show. I have such fond memories of dressing up in my Great Granny’s hats and silk gloves and “performing” when I was little, and the kids from Greyfriars are really excited about the show.

What sort of atmosphere are you hoping to create?

The show is taking place on the 21st of April in Holy Trinity Church, a beautiful, historical building which sets the tone for the event perfectly. This event is going to be very warm and nostalgic with family and community at its heart. The clothes will dance around the venue to the sweet sounds of live music brought to you by talented student musicians and we will pause to tell the heart-warming stories behind certain items. Our only criteria for models is that they are enthusiastic about the cause and if anyone has vintage items hiding in the wardrobe, it’s not too late to get involved! Get in touch on Facebook or send us an email at: wardrobestoriesstandrews@gmail.com.