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Kenyon Shankie, a freelance film maker for the charity My Life Films.

His work stars people with dementia and helps them to reflect on a life well lived and connect with their loved ones.

“I work in lots of different areas, from music videos to commercials, but working with My Life Films gives me a unique opportunity to tell people’s life stories in a meaningful way.

Back home in New Zealand I worked for the government helping people on mental health benefits find fulfilling jobs. Interviewing people taught me how to be mindful and patient, how to frame questions and when to move on from a topic or go back to it. My job at My Life Films is to show the highlights of a life so that a person with dementia can remember, reflect on it in a positive way and gain a better quality of life.

A typical day...

… doesn’t really exist! I can be up all night working for a client but mostly I like to get straight into work when I wake. 
My job for My Life Films is in stages. First I meet the person and their family to find out what the key, pivotal moments have been in their life. We work out chronological life chapters, from being born, onto education, first job, marriage, and so on.
The nest meeting is about selecting the music and photos which we digitalise and show throughout the film. Filming the interview follows this and takes one or two half-days. Last is the editing which can take up to two weeks.

It's important...

…that the family trusts me and feels safe to tell their story, a process that can often give them a sense of catharsis. As well as the half-hour film, we offer a five-minute version where I do a voiceover telling the story of the person’s life over a series of photos. It’s aimed to help carers learn things about the person they work for and they really appreciate it because it gives them material for good conversation.

The hardest thing... interacting with families who are having a really hard time because of the terrible effects of dementia. I think it’s worst for those close to the person with it as they are often full-time carers but when their loved one forgets their name it’s devastating. I don’t think there’s been a film I’ve worked on where people haven’t cried. I just try to be empathetic and to listen. Though it’s very rewarding, I often leave feeling quite mentally drained.

The best bit...

…is the film premier where the family gather to watch. It’s an emotional rollercoaster with lots of tender moments, laughing and people pointing and reminiscing. I meet fantastic people from all walks of life who have lived incredible lives and I love seeing old black and white photos and how people have changed.

I've learned...

…that there are people who work really hard and have amazing experiences through their careers – like the surgeon or psychologist I met – and there are people whose lives are defined by really powerful relationships, but the only thing that really matters is to live life to its fullest doing all these great human things.

Story-telling to transform lives

My Life Films raise self-esteem and restore hope and dignity to people suffering with dementia, as well as giving families precious memories to cherish forever.

This is a feature from Issue 2 of Charitable Traveller. Click to read more from this issue.