It’s Monday morning and Aunty Mary is having a ball of a time. While laying out flowers on cyanotype paper, the 78-year-old exclaims that the flowers appear to be saying hello to her. A stray flower escapes the arrangement and she chides that it’s getting “naughty”. She uses bold brushstrokes to coat the print with a special light-sensitive solution and gives a final flourish.
While waiting for the pressed flowers to be exposed to the UV light, Aunty Mary breaks out spontaneously into dance, swaying to oldies music playing in the background. Her daughter-in-law Shirley and domestic helper Yanti watch on with amusement.
Later, she soaks the print in a basin of water and gives it a spin. “It’s swimming!” she exclaims. Slowly, the print turns an inky blue, and the ghostly shapes of delicate flowers start to form.
Aunty Mary is learning how to do flower pressing and cyanotype printing with artist Samatha Tio at the Tiong Bahru branch of the Alzheimer’s Disease Association (ADA).
This latest collaboration with Aunty Mary builds on Samantha’s previous efforts of reminiscence therapy for the seniors at ADA, using old photographs. Diagnosed with dementia in 2015, Mary was among this group of seniors who participated in the Silver Arts festival, an annual festival dedicated to celebrating seniors and creative ageing.
For this project, Samantha chose to do flower pressing and cyanotype printing, as she felt it was an age-appropriate activity and suitable for someone with cognitive limitations.
The group first met for breakfast at the traditional Yijia Bakery House Cafe along Thomson, followed by flower shopping at the Far East Flora nurseries. There, Aunty Mary enthused over seeing the rainbow coloured baby’s breath and pink flowers. “They are so beautiful, they make me feel like jumping up!” she said.
In the subsequent sessions, Aunty Mary made several samples of flower pressing for her husband John and her grandchildren, in preparation for the final stage of cyanotype printing. Yanti and Shirley joined it as well, with Shirley joking that Aunty Mary has “more creative juices than all of them combined.”
Chatty and with a zest for life, Aunty Mary’s lively presence livens up every room that she is in. She loves to joke and make people laugh, often singing along to her favourite songs by The Carpenter and XX (?).
Along the way, she dispenses little gems of wisdom in the conversation, such as the philosophy behind why she has arranged the flowers a certain way or how singing liberates people and feeds their soul.
But there are signs that something is amiss. Aunty Mary often veers off tangent, has trouble recognising familiar faces and often gets her grandchildren mixed up. Occasionally, she gets plagued with self-doubt, saying that her “thinking cap is very bad” and laments that people think that her “brain is lousy and cannot work.”
To help keep her busy and active, Shirley accompanies her to ADA sessions where she takes part in art and craft, baking and cooking. She recalls how Aunty Mary, known affectionately to her grandchildren as “Nana”, used to whip up elaborate feasts of her famous devil’s curry and chicken pie during the Christmas festivities.
The family also engaged Yanti to keep a watchful eye on Aunty Mary and help her with daily activities like cooking, dressing and bathing. Yanti also accompanies Aunty Mary and John on regular outings to various malls and parks.
It’s this positive support and family environment that play a crucial role in seniors’ mental well-being, said Samantha, who has observed other participants accompanied by reluctant spouses and helpers who just sit by passively during the sessions.
The artist said she derives great meaning from working with seniors, as it has helped her consider what quality of life she would like for her own parents and for herself.
“Through these sessions, I learn to slow down… It makes me wonder, why are we hurrying all the time? What are we trying to arrive at?” she mused.
She noted that in Singapore, people tend to shun the idea of ageing and death. They also label the old with harsh words, painting them as “useless, unproductive and a burden.”
“That kind of negativity towards ageing, especially towards dementia, doesn’t provide a good environment,” said Samantha.
Comparing that against her husband’s culture in Indonesia, she said, “Over there, they see an elderly person as somebody full of wisdom, experience and deeply connected with the spiritual. And that somebody old can be cute and full of humour as well…so I think that’s very beautiful.”
“In fact, the moment I realised that he was the person I wanted to marry was when he said, “You’re going to be such a cute grandma and I want to hold your hand when you get old!” she said with a laugh.
For her, working with seniors with dementia brings about rich, multi-fold experiences.
“Rather than think of it as trying to help them, I bring out what’s so special about them and embrace their situation.” she said. “I’m very grateful that my practice allows me to do that.”
Vivacious and full of life, Aunty Mary’s presence livens up every room that she is in. The expressive 78-year-old loves singing, art, cooking and exploring Singapore with her beloved husband John. Diagnosed with dementia in 2015, she attends sessions at Alzheimer’s Disease Association with her daughter-in-law Shirley and her domestic helper Yanti.
ARTIST BIO With her practice, Samantha Tio is interested in condensing space and time through the processes of layering images. Mintio focuses on the use of optics and analog techniques in constructing her work. She sees her processes with analog techniques, especially with her use of film photography, to be performative and meditative. In this age where our day to day life is bombarded with the influx of digital media and images, Mintio encourages viewers to encounter time, with means outside of the digital world, as an alternative experience to reality. She also runs Ketemu Project, a transnational art collective and social enterprise hybrid based in Indonesia and Singapore.