Reflection as a core practice in Handmade Wellbeing project

Reflecting our own practice as facilitators and artists and sharing our reflections in local, national and international collaboration has formed the backbone of the Handmade Wellbeing project. First, the facilitators of the workshops have actively reflected on their decisions, principles and facilitation practice while designing and conducting the workshops in care settings. Many of them have written for example learning diaries during the process, and some of the diaries have been collected for research data.

In all the partner countries, training the facilitators has included group activities which have provided an opportunity to share private reflections with peers and project managers/supervisors, as well as with care staff in the collaborating care settings.

See below examples of learning diary instructions for the facilitators and group discussion forms from Finland.

Learning Diary read the instructions
Start group discussionsee the form
end group discussionsee the template

Project’s international training weeks have provided an opportunity to get familiar with practice in other countries. The reflection sessions that were arranged during each training week made it possible to comment and share views and best practices, and to develop them together. The participants from all the partner countries worked collaboratively in the reflection sessions to create a handbook for working creatively with older people. This process benefited from the broad expertise that the four different partners brought together. The strength of the University of Helsinki is the in-depth understanding of craft pedagogy, whereas Superact has long experience in various community development projects. uniT KUNSTLABOR is experienced in artistic projects in communities and care homes, while Viljandi Culture Academy is specialized in craft culture and its importance to identity construction. Bringing the varied expertise together was valuable for the participants’ learning experiences.

Indeed, learning to reflect and appreciating the opportunity for reflection and feedback with other people are also important outcomes of this project. One can have many experiences, but without reflecting them properly, one learns very little. The results of our reflections, the learning during this project has been put together in the Handmade Wellbeing Handbook. Read about the development of the Handbook here.

handmade wellbeing handbookdownload pdf

Read also some reflections of facilitators, project managers, workshop participants and care staff below!

handmade wellbeing viljandi
Sharing views and practice in international collaboration in Viljandi training weeks. Photo: Sirpa Kokko
About international collaboration
This was a new field for us, to work with older people. It was very important to visit the care settings in other countries and meet the elderly residents in them. I know this was extremely important to our students as well. There were some differences between countries in the care system, of course, but in the end it’s all the same: people. It’s all about people, contacting and being with them, no matter where you are, what age they are, what is their condition and what language they speak. Crafts can facilitate making human connection, even without common language or words.
Handmade Wellbeing Viljandi
International collaboration was very educative. It is enlightening to become aware of your own cultural situation and – for a while – look at your own culture as exotic.  

The artists and handicrafters in different countries have different approaches due to our education, and sociocultural background. Also, words like ‘art’ and ‘handicraft’ bear different meanings and connotations for older people in different countries. Every partner had developed a unique artistic position in care settings. This makes every context very special: sometimes it might be very tricky to adapt the partners’ experiences and best practices in your own cultural context.

Handmade Wellbeing Helsinki
Printing workshop
The opportunity to see how arts and craft activities are arranged in different countries intrigued me. The open-mindedness I saw fascinated me: people gather to workshops just to spend time together – to be together with younger people, to do something totally new.
It has been interesting to notice the different approaches that the different partners of this project have towards arts and crafts activities. Also the expectations of the older people in the care settings were slightly different: according to my observations, the Austrian participants were very open to artistic approaches, whereas in Estonia the participants were keen on making high-quality crafts. In Finland, the older people participating in the workshops were concerned about making things the correct way while in England they were keen to try something new. These observations may tell something about the approach to arts and crafts that the older people in these respective countries have been experiencing during their lifetime. For example, the Finnish participants concern about the correct way of making crafts may be based on their formal school time experiences since that aspect has been emphasized in craft education during their school years.
I have worked in many UK care settings and I was looking forward to visiting care homes in Europe. I knew that I had much to learn from this experience. In October 2016 I visited three completely different care settings in Graz, Austria. At St. Peter’s I saw the benefits of a ten year collaboration where our partners have developed a good working relationship with the Home’s Director. There was much artwork on display and the home has a very personal feel to it.

At the second visit to sheltered accommodation in Kumberg Village I entered into a conversation with a resident who has produced some beautiful artwork. She talked to me about the importance of her independence and she clearly enjoyed the community and creative spirit of her home. The third visit took us to a converted hospital where we took part in a creative printing activity with residents. I took part in  printing activity with two residents who chatted about their lives  as they worked on their printing blocks.  I was impressed by the dynamic activities coordinator Daniella and her dedication to her role in this large care setting, run on four floors. This made me even more keen for the week with our Partners in Viljandi, Estonia where we were given the chance to visit Viiratsi Nursing Home  in a rural setting and speak to residents who gave a warm welcome. I enjoyed the visit to the Sakala day care centre in Viljandi where we watched a traditional dance class and worked in a real workshop alongside women designing and making badges. I especially enjoyed the visit to the Tartu day centre where I met with a group of women who were creating beautiful slippers, gloves etc. There was such a feeling of warmth and togetherness for these women who still lived at home but came together to make things together and socialise.

I talk about these visits often to UK colleagues and practitioners in the UK who are interested to find out  about how care settings operate  in Europe.  We really do have so much to learn from each other and it has been a privilege for me to make these visits.

Artists at KUNSTLABOR Graz from uniT have been working with elderly people for several years now. Everyone from KUNSTLABOR who is involved sees “Handmade – Wellbeing” as a project that has provided important inspiration for the further development of their own work.

What did we find particularly important? First of all, cooperative work in the framework of training events with colleagues from Great Britain, Estonia and Finland allowed us to find out what characterises our own work. Discussion and comparison helped us to better understand our own approach and made it possible for us to formulate defining principles of our work more precisely. This is a prerequisite for being able to reflect on our work more accurately in situ and disseminate it. This also became the basis for training other artists interested in the work. Furthermore, we became familiar with other positions and techniques, which we integrated into our work.

Our experience in Finland was a particular highlight: we were given the task of observing a group of Finnish colleagues working together with elderly people. We Austrians had the impression that the elderly were very cautious in their interaction with others. We were entirely taken aback when colleagues from Finland and Estonia commented that they were particularly impressed by the lively and involved communication of the elderly participants. This was a very striking example of cultural differences and of how carefully physical contact and touch has to be dealt with. As Austrians we have experienced physical contact to be an important form of communication for elderly people (of course, we pay great attention to a respectful manner and to the maintaining of boundaries). When working in Finland and Estonia however, physical contact is almost a no go. This became particularly clear in the discussion afterwards.

There is also a third aspect we would like to mention: we were very impressed by the difference in the way handicrafts in folk art are valued. In German-speaking countries there is still little space for this type of artistic-creative expression. This is undoubtedly connected with the fact that large parts of folk art were misused by the Nazis. We still have not found a good way of dealing with it and have not yet succeeded in taking back folk art and folk culture. The situation seems to be very different in Finland and Estonia. Here, there is a great deal of pride in folk culture and it is dealt with in a neutral manner. We were particularly impressed by our visit to the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. It is housed in an incredibly successful building, constructing in the most modern of architecture styles, and is dedicated to everyday culture and folk art. The combination of the museum building and its content is in itself remarkable. Here, folk culture is approached without being sidetracked by nationalism. It was very inspiring.

About working with older people in care settings
When reflecting on my position during the workshops, I saw myself as experienced artist: my aim was to teach some possible techniques, but I gave elderly all the artistic freedom. I positioned myself and the group as equals – acknowledging that the only difference is that I have more experiences in that particular technique.
Handmade Wellbeing UK
I try to remember the names of the residents as this is respectful. This isn’t always easy at first so sometimes it’s a good idea to make a seating plan to help you remember. It’s worth it because people like to hear their own names.
I realised that knowing a little information about the participants at the start of the session, in regards to their abilities and interests is helpful to the artist. For example, knowing which people have asked to watch rather than take part.
Many participants wanted clear guidance on the design, however, that was the part that should be personal to them. So continuous encouragement to be brave and try our things was needed. Once they tried out a few pieces their confidence grew.
It helps to keep an eye on the group dynamics, especially when supporting people with dementia as moods can change suddenly. Be aware and respectful of what else is happening in the home and stick to deadlines for lunch etc.
All the workshop facilitators had previously conducted many workshops for different audiences. They went into project workshops open-mindedly, not always being quite sure of their role – or how they would share roles with local care workers.

When the workshop facilitators introduced themselves as the staff members or students from university’s native handicraft department, they noticed that they were very quickly ascribed a rather conservative role of a teacher. To some extent it is true: the facilitator brings her/his expert knowledge and (s)he has designed the workshops structure and activities. During the workshop process the roles adjust: when doing something together, people open. As they present more aspects of their personalities, the roles of each party become more complex and hierarchies are diminished.

To run a successful workshop in adult care settings, one has to remember that older people are not a homogenous group. Any kind of social othering or objectification has to be avoided. When working in care settings, one should be prepared for diverse group of participants: making the program flexible is the key for successful and enjoyable event.

Try to have a spare table ready for your resources. At the beginning show examples of some completed work so that people can see what they are working towards.
The whole process of designing my workshops was rather experimental and I was ready to retry different methods with different tools and materials. Textile printing is a technique that I hadn’t used much in my artist career and not all of my previous attempts had been a success. During the preparation period, I appreciated the opportunity to experiment, and not only to succeed, but also to fail. My playfulness was something that I wanted to take with me into the workshop environment.
Remember to welcome newcomers to a workshop. At one of the homes the workshop was open into a busy corridor, so a number of people showed interest and popped in throughout the session.
Handmade Wellbeing UK
In the first textile printing workshop, I provided participants with unhemmed tablecloths, but I encouraged everyone to bring to next session their own personal items. It was amazing how creatively people responded – in the follow-up workshops I saw people decorating T-shirts, gift-bags, shoulder bags and one lady even experimented how textile printing works on knitted cardigan! When I contacted the groups later to introduce the idea of public exhibition, people were very eager to participate, but they also wanted to know when exactly do we need the items – because many of them were already in everyday use.
From the care staff and older workshop participants
It went really well this week, even though the residents had to focus a little more than the first week, because their concentration levels were different. The artwork theme was flexible which really helped with choice.
The morning goes quickly when I’m doing this. Can you come back tomorrow?
Handmade Wellbeing UK
I have tried art activities on my own with no support and found it very difficult. This type of activity is important in a dementia care home because you can really focus on the the residents who have the interest, skills and abilities to do this level of work.
Where is this going to be hanging when it’s finished? It will make a big difference to our home. It belongs to us.
I am especially pleased that this resident has joined us today as she usually stays for hours in her bed. It was good to see her out of her room taking part in making something and socialising.
This reminds me of my dressmaking days. I still like to get it right but I am slower now and need to rest. I remember most of it though.
We collected oral feedback from care workers and participants during and after each workshop. We also asked to write down their comments and share them with us after all the workshops were delivered.

The care workers admitted that it is not always easy for the setting to offer versatile possibilities for their clients. They were grateful for the new ideas and techniques that our artisans introduced, and they described our workshops as a breath of fresh air. The project set clear limitations and we were not always able to deliver as many workshops as we were expected.

The participants’ feedback was very supportive, polite, and brief. They expressed disappointment when they were not able to participate in more workshops (we had to set a quota of participants). It was obvious that they would happily continue our collaboration: some people expressed ideas what they would like to do in the future workshops. One noteworthy aspect that was reflected upon, was the gratitude towards young people who worked with them. Intergenerational cooperation was something that was especially appreciated.

After the workshops, the participants expressed their gratitude. They had enjoyed themselves: they were able to reveal and discover new qualities of their personalities. Participation was definitely a bit of a challenge: it also offered a possibility to compete with each other. It was noteworthy that although the residents were very aware of the fact that there was not much personal space in their rooms, they expressed joy of having something new to decorate their homes. The feeling of having completed a project was very important. Some residents who had not participated during the workshops, asked the workshop leader to create a piece for them, too.
When I woke up I felt unwell, I feel better now. I am happy to take in what others are doing.
Handmade wellbeing Graz
I was initially concerned about the idea of a printing activity as I tried it myself once and the residents found it too much like school. The artist’s session worked better because her handmade leaf printing blocks were appropriate for adults.
From the distance my work looks different but still mine.
I am really pleased that one of the residents stayed with us for the whole workshop, which surprised me as she normally walks around the home non-stop. She must have been stimulated and interested enough to stay with us and this was her choice.
Workshop facilitators’ reflections about making crafts, wellbeing & older people
Working by hand enables people to rediscover themselves, to prove that they are still capable of accomplishments. With the help of artists, products are created that restore identity and make people proud of their achievements. This kind of work fosters amazement: very old people are honestly amazed at their own capabilities, just as those around them are, perceiving them in a new light. And this amazement boosts their self-confidence and joie de vivre. Art puts them into a new perspective. The products are the path to the person behind it all.    
Being old often forces people to perceive their deficits more strongly than their resources, “I can’t do that” being a frequent utterance. Simplification, enlargement and appropriate aids, though, help people with certain handicaps to accomplish certain tasks again. “No, I can’t do that, but perhaps I can do something else”, is what we primarily wanted to hear in our work.

Additionally, we also learned that “we” as a group can do more than an individual. One example: a participant using a wheelchair could not roll out clay to form a slab. However, a second participant helped him because he was able to stand and therefore, to use his strength more effectively. He said thank you and there is applause for that. In another workshop we heard the following: “I can’t tie anything together” … “but you can hold the rod and your neighbour will do the tying”.

We endeavour to see the possibilities, not the handicap, or the limitation. The challenge is to search for a different perspective – to find a new way. And the artists support and accompany people in their search, which is an art in itself. It is about finding out what is possible, or detecting a possibility that is not exploited to the full, or just realising when people are exhausted. Limits have to be perceived, no doubt, but sometimes you can challenge someone to overcome them.

Things that are taken for granted by artists – confusion and irritation as a vital part of the creative/artistic process – can put elderly people off. In order for very old people to pluck up courage and do something unusual and perhaps unforeseeable, they need to trust the person in charge of the workshop.

At first, it is essential to continue with something familiar to limit the extent of the experiment somewhat and that each step is carefully considered. Routine creates a feeling of security, and a given framework offers a firm footing and protection. Yet, we also experience the enthusiasm of older people when they are invited to create something new. It is not easy to leave the beaten path and try something new. The better the relationship is, the greater are the chances you can take. Previous positive experience with experiments will also give them more confidence.

Handmade Wellbeing exhibition in Graz
Ideas are born by exchanging ideas: doing creative work is fun – it is even more fun to work together – people communicate and talk about their ideas, transforming them into something new. Getting involved playfully eases stress, reduces pressure and gives people freedom to venture into new and unfamiliar territory.

The need to play is profoundly human. There is always an opportunity to enjoy that experience. However, it is often unwelcome to be “different”, unconventional, and to have fun instead of pursuing one’s objectives earnestly and conscientiously. It is never too late to learn to play. Playing sparks creativity, thought and actions and we get to know ourselves and others better. Groups are ideal for learning to play.

What has all this got to do with well-being? Well, by doing things that do not make sense gives us a feeling of freedom, independence, solidarity and companionship …

When dealing with the very old, it is crucial to search for work-related procedures that are geared towards performing easy movements. In addition, attention should be paid to possible physical limitations that can also involve a person’s eyesight.

The hands have learned certain movements automatically, making some of them retrievable while others have to be learned again, only to be forgotten again frequently. It is quite clear that repetitive motions can sometimes offer security, irrespective of whether they were learned in the past or quite recently. Even new, more challenging tasks are performed with more precision and are no longer unfamiliar and unaccustomed.

Hand-crafted products also provide the chance to dance – where music is the stimulator. As woollen “sausages”, which were finger-knit by one of our lady participants, move through the room, they also act as holders, borders or toys … at the centre of improvised movement. Another participant wrote later on: “Memories of sporty potential were unleashed”. “Colourful convolutions of the brain”, which were finally installed in the shop window as neural oscillations, flew into the expanse of space. What a journey: knitted sausages sneaking out of Frau’s room prompted people to move and – in the end – turned into a wonderful installation in a shop window.  

It is not easy for old people to establish relations. They often seem very isolated and have little relationship to one another. To act in a group has to be worked on. Probably, those people are withdrawn because of being incapacitated in some way (inability to be attentive, poor eye-sight or hearing and lack of concentration). It is therefore crucial to treat the “individual” with respect.

Positive emotions help people to overcome their self-isolation. Working creatively in a group is one way of doing just that. People are hugely encouraged by the experience of working and creating an amazing work of art together. Former experience will certainly play a role in the process, too: Am I good? Am I doing a good job? Am I getting enough attention?

The expression “male/female material” came from the older people themselves. Although we could put this expression down to social experience, we can still attempt to deconstruct stereotypes by letting participants get acquainted with different kinds of material in order to gather as much experience as possible. The material itself is neither male nor female. It is what we have memorised in our lives that triggers certain associations. By facilitating a free artistic approach to the material, we are able to detect certain patterns of thought and action and stop them. As a consequence, older people enjoy the experience when they notice that they had had fun with material that they imagined to be “men’s material”. This leads us to the following questions: which material prompted a particular person to engage in a work process? What gives whom the ability to connect? What do people associate with certain materials? Which materials evoke what kind of feeling and which of them evoke tactile sensations?
Getting people and their minds moving means providing incentives and accompanying a process. Staying tuned, replenishing lost energy, making suggestions, initiating and developing ideas further without thinking of the outcome, keeping afloat the “what is it going to be”, and building trust – that is what we call guidance. Topics emerge during this process: group, individuality, ideas, deficiencies, etc. – the overarching context of our work which needs to stay flexible in all directions for as long as possible.

Yet, intermediate products are still essential in order to make the road visible: a presentation in front of a group, initially protected, the settings must be appropriate. That helps the participants to see their steps and development. They are able to endure the idea that they do not know where the journey will take them. It is important that everyone sees themselves, contributes and feels a part of the process. Only then will all people stay in the group.

The common outcome emerges from the accompanying artists’ dramaturgical work. The outcome is simply the end of a process that could be continued, can be continued and indeed, is continued, albeit in a different direction depending on the person involved. The outcome is a point in time to stop and reflect on what is visible and what not. Whatever is missing –will be developed into something new. The outcome is a stimulus. No more and no less.

Artist facilitator’s reflection about the effect of making crafts on older people
I see great potential for everybody who is involved in the creative work with very old people. Being creative can affect various levels. It gives the participants a sense of doing something, of creating and achieving something. In some cases, the old people fall back on existing abilities or on abilities they had forgotten, or they may relearn something or learn something new entirely. Creative work makes it possible to take the individual resources and desires of people into account. Every material has its own, very special properties and qualities, but most materials can also be easily adjusted to individual needs. So the material used or the use that will be made of an item it is not necessarily important. What counts is the way in which the material is used and what we decide to let it become.

I think working with your hands can appeal to many functional senses and strengthen them. Another central element I would say besides the encounter is the gain in visibility. Old age makes people invisible to some extent – this is due to the loss of social integration and also the fact that old people withdraw and tend to become secluded. When they become creative, people are essentially doing the opposite of this vanishing act by materializing something. The process is important, but so too is the result. Many very old people associate their value with their ability to do, to create something. Being creative earns them recognition – their own recognition and that of others – and this can boost their self-esteem. This aspect becomes even stronger when an artistic approach is chosen. Working in groups is also important for old people, because it creates impetus for their self-consciousness and group dynamics. Besides the proven positive physical effects, handicraft work can boost people’s autonomy and self-esteem, and enhance their feeling of belonging somewhere of being part of a group. Plus, it stimulates the intellect. The brain can experience new things, experiment and play!

Sharing experience and including different persons is important. I believe that intergenerational work plays a central role in that. Making visible, creating space for encounters, for new things, for integration and empowerment. Art offers the possibility to link up to very old people directly, for listening to them and seeing what their needs are and what you can do for them. A collaborative process can be created where remembrance work can play a role and where the history and biography of the people are taken into account.

Artist facilitator’s reflection about ageing and being old
Aging and being old is a process and as with many other things, the way we perceive this process is relative. What categories do we attribute to age? In our times it does not seem to be desirable to be old. Everything we do is geared at keeping us young, pretty and fit. Age confronts us with mortality, with issues such as physical and mental limitations, with the past, memories, the loss of autonomy, death and loneliness. But age is also a resource. It opens up access to knowledge about lived-in worlds, biographies, wisdom and rich experience and naturally to personalities and people. Ageing is also a state of mind. You are always only as old as you feel. Activity is vital and contributes to keeping our skills and joy of life. Even in old age we can encounter the world with curiosity and openness – and this instantly makes you years younger! This is what I have learned in the Handmade Wellbeing project.