Dementia Researcher’s cycle to Paris fundraising for the Alzheimer’s Society

Eilis Hannon is a Bioinformatician in the Complex Disease Epigenetics Group in the University of Exeter Medical School. Eilis’ research focuses on improving our understanding of the molecular processes involved in the development of schizophrenia and other neuropsychiatric disorders. She has an interested in the dynamic nature of human brain development and the way genetic variation influences this process.

 

About a year ago, 6 researchers from the University of Exeter signed up for the Alzheimer’s Society London to Paris fundraising cycle ride. We all work on different aspects of dementia and have benefited from funding from the Alzheimer’s Society, so this was our opportunity to give something back whilst pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone of sitting behind our computers, or in our lab coats.

In the spirit of the ride we combined forces when it came to the fundraising and therefore set ourselves an ambitious target of raising £12,000. A few posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media got us off to a good start but we knew we would need a few traditional fundraising activities to maintain the momentum and interest in our efforts – so we geared ourselves up for a few cake sales. All the cyclists (and many colleagues) got involved with the baking and we offered a wide range of cakes, biscuits and some bespoke themed delicacies including neuron cupcakes and the main event – the brain cake. A classic 3 layer Victoria sponge on the inside, covered in fondant worms and glazed with raspberry jam. It worked well as a centrepiece to draw passers-by in to the stall with some people even willing to try a piece. Across a coffee mornings and 2 cake sales held in the Forum at Streatham, St Luke’s campus and the RILD building we raised more than £1000 towards our total.

With the fundraising in hand, our attention turned to training for the actual cycle. In addition to commutes, quick spins before or after work and extended weekend rides, we also tackled some local Sportives such as the Dartmoor Classic, Jurassic Beast and the Nello. There were sore knees, thighs, close calls with tractors, flat tires, lots of energy bars, jelly babies and unfortunately one broken wrist which meant our six was down to five for the actual event.

The start point was Blackheath Common in South London and early on Wednesday morning, along with 100 other cyclists all raising money for the same cause, we set off to Paris via Dover, Dunkirk, Cambrai and Soissons. The first day was arguably the hardest; busy roads through London, windy lanes with steep up and down stretches through Ken,t and the added pressure over getting to the Ferry on time! Once in France the main challenge was the distance (70-100 miles per day) and hours in the saddle. Personally, I suffered tightness and an ache between the shoulder blades from hunching over the handlebars, although this did distract somewhat from the other side effects of cycling for 8-10 hours. The “hills” in the route were no match for those we had tackled over Dartmoor, Exmoor, Blackdowns hills and Quantocks in our training, and in some ways were the most enjoyable bits. As promised, France truly was a joy to cycle through, with far fewer cars, and the wider more open roads across rolling terrain making for pleasant viewing.  After four days in the saddle, covering 250 miles in the sun, wind and rain, we cycled the final few miles across the cobbles (!) around the Arc de Triomphe and up towards the Champs D’Elsysee en masse, all wearing our blue and red Alzheimer’s Society Jerseys.

Most of the other participants were taking part because someone close to them had, or has Alzheimer’s Disease. The Alzheimer’s Society not only funds scientific research but also helps support patients and their families with small grants, Dementia Cafes, Singing for the Brain® sessions, and Dementia Advisers, Dementia Support Workers and Side by Side volunteers. Most of our fellow cyclists were more familiar with the support and information services that the Society provides, and while they whole heartedly support the research aspect, it is an area they are less familiar with. I think it was mutually beneficial, therefore, for us to hear about individual experiences, spend time and discuss the work we do. As scientists rather than clinicians, we perhaps forget all too easily the reality of having Alzheimer’s for both patients, family and friends. We know the statistics on the numbers affected and the cost to the economy, but this experience, more than anything, renewed our perspective and focus on the ultimate goal of what we do day-to-day. With the proof of our exploits posted on social media, the final donations came flooding in. Combined with all the other riders we raised an incredible £321,066, showing the value of these group efforts in generating momentum and enthusiasm for the cause, which ultimately leads to more donations.

Research in Focus: Mindful Colouring

Chloe Asker is a 1st year Human Geography PhD student, who has just started a thesis entitled ‘Mindful geographies? Towards the therapeutic geographies of mindfulness.’ Her previous Masters work studied adult colouring practises and their relationship to wellbeing.
Twitter: @chloeasker

In February the Doctoral College held a ‘Wellbeing Week’. It was a week full of enriching activities and workshops based around PGR wellbeing. Mindful colouring formed part of the activities taking place on campus. Colouring worksheets were circulated around departments and colleges, and many PGRs spent a blissful moment colouring in-between the lines.

https://twitter.com/nurfariha/status/832031716734795780

I am excited that the Doctoral College takes mindful colouring seriously, as often it is mocked as a ‘childish’ practice. As a geography student, this teasing is something that’s fairly common. The one joke or comment that stands the test of time is: ‘geography, isn’t that just colouring in?!’ This classic statement is often greeted with a fair amount of eye-rolling and exasperated sighing from the geographers questioned, and for many years during my Undergraduate degree, this had been my reaction as well.

However, during my third year of my degree, I became aware of, and experimented with, a trend in ‘therapeutic’ and ‘mindful’ adult colouring practices. From here, instead of seeing colouring-in as an infantile practice, or as something to be mocked, I wanted to seriously engage with and understand this trend and its implications for wellbeing.

How did I research this?

The main aim of the research was to understand whether colouring is a mindful1 and therapeutic2 practice. To do so, I drew on qualitative methodologies of auto-ethnography and participant ethnography.

My auto-ethnographic practice allowed personal insight into colouring and mindfulness. Since I am not a trained mindfulness practitioner I needed to develop my personal knowledge of the practice. So I spent a considerable amount of time practicing mindfulness and colouring, I then reflected my experiences in a research diary.

The participant ethnography stage took place in a local mental health and wellbeing charity3 where I organised drop-in colouring sessions for clients who accessed the facility. The colouring and meditation sessions were followed by discussion and questionnaires.

What did I find out?

Two main themes came out of this work.

The first was that colouring cultivated an immersive awareness that simultaneously stretched out the moment, by paying close attention to it, but also made it fly by as we entered ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997). This ‘flow’ space acted like a mental retreat: we were still embedded in everyday life, but we had found a therapeutic and immersive part of the world.

To illustrate this, one participant fed back to the group: “I was so focused and thought of nothing but colouring.”

Here, her colouring practice completely filling her consciousness, taking her away from everyday anxieties and worries. Instead, she was cultivating her attention on the micro-spaces of the page and of her hand-on-the-pencil-on-the-paper in motion. The attention to our bodily rhythms is something that we so often neglect. Colouring allowed this participant to come back to the body, and cultivate a mindful sense of awareness.

Secondly, a couple of participants felt that the colouring was more frustrating than helpful. For example, the minuscule details on the page caused discomfort for people with eyesight difficulties.

“I’ve been sitting there with reading glasses on, and still can’t see, I have to stop when the eyes go, that’s the downside.”

These experiences often lead to the abandonment of the exercise, and were sometimes met with a reluctance to try again. Also, some were hesitant to begin the practice; one participant felt they could not complete the colouring sheet ‘well enough’. Some found a personal pressure to attain a high standard of colouring, as they were measuring themselves against others and critically evaluating their own work.

These brief snapshots have shown that the therapeutic nature of colouring is subjective and multifaceted. For some it is met with a sense of anxiety due to their perceived potential at ‘failing’, or issues of accessing the material. But, for others it really does work, providing them with a retreat and a mindful immersion that is attentive to their breath, body, colouring pencils and the page. Overall, taking these engagements seriously is important to open up discussions about, and share experiences of wellbeing and mental health.

Resources:

During the Doctoral College’s Wellbeing Week last year, colouring-in flyers and posters were posted around campus, find them here: https://www.exeter.ac.uk/media/universityofexeter/doctoralcollege/pdfs/Colour_Me_In-1.pdf

Free mandala colouring pages can be found here: https://printmandala.com/

Some recommended colouring books:

Basford, J., 2013. Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book. Laurence King Publishing.

Marotta, M., 2014. Animal Kingdom: Colour Me, Draw Me. Lark Books.

Notes:

1I took a conceptualisation of mindfulness from John Kabat-Zinn’s widely used definition: ‘paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.’ (Kabat-Zinn, 2016, p. 4). There are many debates around this definition, and its possible simplification of Buddhist practice (for more detailed discussion see: Sun, 2014; Wilson, 2014)

Since becoming a PGR Chloe has set up a regular ‘wellbeing wednesday’ event in the Geography department with Emily Husband. The Doctoral College are supporting Chloe to run a Festive Craft event on Thursday 14th December from 3-4pm in Old Library Rooms 4&5. Come along to make your own research ‘bauble’, and enjoy some tea, coffee, mince pies and chat! You can sign up here.