I was chatting with one of our care home friend volunteers a few weeks ago and he said something that really struck me: “I’m not afraid of dementia any more”. Given that dementia is the most feared illness in our society, this is no small thing.
Today I caught up with him to find out more. Stephen, 78, is a retired architect and started volunteering for Embracing Age as he wanted to contribute to his local community. He responded to a request for a volunteer to play chess, without realising that the resident actually needed to learn how to play, which Stephen felt ill equipped to do. Instead they now read poetry to each other and have built a mutual friendship. Stephen has also got to know some of the other residents - he estimates that about 75% of them have some degree of dementia.
I asked Stephen why he’s not afraid of dementia any more:
“I think we all have an in built fear of losing our minds. A relative has had dementia for the last 18 months and watching him crash has not been very nice, if I can put it that way. But there, at the care home, most of those with dementia still try to communicate, and if you make an effort you can talk to them, and you realise that dementia isn’t the end of life for them. I’m amazed how open people are, they plough on with their interests, like gardening, and if you get them on a subject they’re interested in, they really open up. One lady in her 90’s is a barrel of fun, we always joke and she has a really great attitude to her dementia. She says, “I love it here. I know I can’t remember what happened yesterday”. She’s not letting it get on top of her, which I think is wonderful.”
This year at the Council's Full of Life Fair, celebrating Older People's Day, we worked with churches across the Borough of Richmond to showcase the plethora of activities they run for older people. We produced a leaflet detailing all the activities and gave out over 350, with a free tealight. Most people had no idea that so many activities were available in local churches and we were very well received.
To see what's happening for older people in local churches across the Borough click on our interactive map.
I read a very moving post on facebook earlier this week from John Noble, who with his wife Christine, have been influential in church leadership over many years. He shares about Christine's journey with dementia and he has given me permission to reporoduce his post here. Well worth a read:
"It is almost one year since the love of my life was taken into care. Initially she was to go into the home for two weeks in an attempt to balance her medication as various other efforts had failed to keep her on an even keel. I was not permitted to see her for one week which was like being assigned to seven days of mental torture. I spent the week in tears.
When I finally got to see Christine and talk to the nurse who ran the home, she said that she hadn’t realised how advanced and aggressive Christine’s dementia was and she didn’t know how we had coped. Her conclusion was that it was time for Christine to be taken into permanent care.
At that moment I discovered that incompatible emotions such as relief and agony can exist side by side but not without creating turmoil and confusion. Family and the many encouragements and prayers of friends have helped me to adjust to my new situation. However, in spite of the difficulty of caring for Christine, there was a gaping hole in my life.
Months on and a various combinations of drugs tested, nothing seemed to have had the desired effect of keeping Christine calm and at peace. True she had some better days but in reality she spent a great deal of time crying.
This behaviour started while she was at home. I put it down to the multiple TV advertisements which appear in the channels most likely to be watched by older people. Pictures of sick and dying children and heart wrenching appeals for donations every fifteen minutes whilst watching your favourite episode of Poirot, is not a helpful way to relax.
It seemed that these images conjured up visions of suffering children such as Christine had often seen as she sought to minister in deprived areas of the world. Of course, I quickly learned to prerecord the programmes and delete the adverts but those images appeared to remain embedded somewhere deep within.
So it was that some days ago a new drug in a fairly high dosage was tried. When I went in at my usual time to give Christine her supper she was out for the count which is most unusual as she is mostly on the move, shuffling around to see what is going on. Her head was slumped forward and it took me a good ten to fifteen minutes to wake her. Finally, when I did arouse her she could barely walk an inch at a time, staring down at the floor as I helped her along. Once again I was shattered!
This went on for a few days and each visit I struggled to hold back the tears until I left to come home in the car. Then one of the nurses who saw my distress tried to comfort me, “it’s a question of which is best,” she said, “do you want Christine as a zombie or do you want her crying most of the time?”
This was not a choice I was anxious to make and after a couple of the staff helped me settle Christine into a chair, my lovely zombie began to cry anyway. This was the first time I broke down in front of the staff. I sobbed out my thanks for their help and something about not coping and then hurried out to the sanctuary of my car.
The next day at the home I was greeted with concerned looks and while I helped Christine with her supper the nurse said that they were going to halve the dosage of medication to see if that made a difference. Thank God it did! And, hallelujah, we’re on to more smiles and fewer tears! On a recent visit Christine actually reached out and pulled me close and whispered quite coherently, “I love you,” and gave me a full on, sloppy, kiss! Wow, that was special!
My experiences over these last few years, and particularly these months since Christine went into care, have given me huge appreciation for the myriads of people who are enduring the kind of pain we are suffering and sometimes much, much worse. How many of them manage without family help and many more not knowing the blessing of being in touch with Jesus, I shall never know.
I am also incredibly impressed by the staff who work in the home. Most of them are immigrants as, it seems, most of us Brits don’t want to work in such demanding jobs. The long hours, low pay and caring for such needy people, many of whom are almost totally incapacitated, disturbed and sometimes quite aggressive, is tiring work. Yet they are always ready with a welcome and a smile and more often than not, even when they’re busy, tea and biscuits.
On top of all their regular tasks, washing, dressing, feeding, distributing medication, toilet trips and watching out for those in danger of falling or doing themselves some damage, they do try to interact with the residents on a personal basis as much as possible. However, the reality is they just don’t have the time to engage with them as they would like.
All this has led me to ask myself two questions; what could be done to improve life for those caring for loved ones at home? And, how could the amazing commitment of the staff working in care homes be supplemented to provide one to one engagement on a regular basis for residents who need that kind of attention?
I found myself wishing I was younger and had the time and resources to start a charity to train an army of retired volunteers. These, perhaps, older people who are often overlooked and undervalued themselves, could get alongside lonely, pressurised carers in their homes and also make regular visits to nursing homes to stand with staff, lightening the load and making life a little brighter for some residents who need more interaction or have no family to visit them.
In recent years Christians have risen to many of the challenges which have surfaced in our broken society. And, far from having withdrawn from the ‘world’ because we are not ‘of it’, we are now fully engaged in positive action without becoming involved in the ‘world system’ which is what scripture warns us against. Street pastors, prison visiting, healing on the streets, youth mentoring, food banks are just a few of the fantastic initiatives which are making a tremendous difference but surely this is just the beginning and there is much, much more that we can do.
My belief is that there is some saint out there with the gifts and abilities required to mobilise an army to serve in this area of growing concern. Maybe they are just crying out to the Lord to open a door of opportunity so that they can find their place in the heart of what God is doing to turn this nation around and back to its Christian roots. So, maybe you could join me in praying that the Holy Spirit will connect those with the skills to those with the resources. In this way the many, who would love to serve in this needy area, can be empowered to get on and invade our care homes with the presence and the love of Jesus!"
As we wish farewell to a number of our volunteers who are off to university I thought I'd share some of their experiences with you. Here's what Lucy says:
"I started volunteering in December of 2015, and was placed in a small dementia care home a short bus ride away from my house.
When I applied to Embracing Age, I expected to go to a care home and chat to a few of the residents and maybe play a few board games with them. However, when I arrived at the care home, I was asked if I played any musical instruments. I (reluctantly!) admitted that I am able to play some piano, and agreed to find some songs that I could play on the care home’s keyboard for the residents to sing along to. This was not a decision that I regretted. Though out of my comfort zone, it was clear to see that some of the residents had few opportunities to sing and really enjoyed joining in during my weekly visits. I will never forget the moment that one particularly sick resident woke up from his sleep, sang along to one song, told us that it was from war time and then promptly fell back asleep. Or the times when another resident, unable to sing, stood up and danced to the music instead. It has been amazing to see how music can connect us all and it has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.
It has been a privilege and a pleasure to get to know the lovely ladies and gentleman of my care home and I will always look back on my time there very fondly."
I was chatting to a care home resident who was so excited to be going on a trip out to Marks and Spencers and Boots this week. She explained how lovely it was just to wander round her favourite shops and how it was these normal things in life that she had missed so much since moving in to a care home. After feedback from residents this care home is organising regular shopping trips to the local retail park.
I’ve also had a request from a care home manager this week for a volunteer to accompany a gentleman on regular trips to the local shops and pub. Again, the normal things in life that we just take for granted.
I was reflecting on how these normal everyday activities mean so much to care home residents. It reminded me of the lady I visit who has quite advanced dementia. We spend an hour together every week just chatting, looking at pictures and laughing together. At the end of every visit she is always so effusive in her thanks: “Thank you so much for visiting me. It’s so nice to have someone to talk to! Thank you so much!” Of course, it’s always nice to be appreciated, but I always feel quite humbled to think that something so simple and so small, just an hour of my time, can mean so much to someone. It really is the small things that count.
On 27th April Tina travelled to Newton Flotman in Norfolk to train a group of 8 volunteers in the first replication of our Care Home Friends project beyond the Borough of Richmond.
We hope it will be the first of many replications, making a difference in the lives of care home residents one person at a time.
Many thanks to nutritional therapist Sarah Wragg for this blog on eating well.
Eating well at any age is important. However ageing can change our attitude and approach to food and it is not uncommon for a person's appetite to diminish. There are many reasons why the elderly may skip a meal, from forgetfulness to a financial burden, depression to dental problems, and loneliness to frailty. Some foods become difficult to chew or digest. Or sometimes the ability to taste food declines in the elderly, blunting appetite.
Even if one doesn't feel hungry, it is still important to make sure your body has the energy and nutrients it needs to thrive. As we get older, the body becomes less efficient at absorbing some key nutrients also. This can sometimes be due to declining hydrochloric acid levels (stomach acid), which helps us break down our food and also absorb vitamins and minerals from our food. If one is suffering from indigestion from time to time, which can be a problem in the elderly, then taking some organic apple cider vinegar before meals or squeezing half a lemon into a little water may help, again drinking it before a meal. Healthy snacking maybe a way forward too, for example if you don’t like to eat large meals, or don't feel hungry enough to eat three full meals a day. One solution is to have mini-meals throughout the day. If this is the case, make sure each mini-meal is nutritionally-dense with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Seeking help from a Nutritional Therapist could be useful if you are finding you have on-going digestive issues.
If you are finding you cannot eat as much as you should, then the food you do eat must be as nutritious as possible. Such as unprocessed foods that are high in calories and nutrients for their size, if one is losing weight this is particularly important. Some examples include: healthy fats (nut butters, oily fish, nuts, seeds and olive oil), whole grains (brown rice, oats and quinoa), fresh fruits (brightly coloured berries, bananas, pomergrante) and vegetables (sweet potato, frozen peas, cooked tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, carrots) - canned and frozen are also good choices if it is not easy to get fresh. Not forgetting protein-rich beans, pulses, meat and dairy products such as greek yoghurt or eggs.
What nutrients are really important as we age?
Eating foods rich in B vitamins can help with energy release such as meats, pulses, sweet potatoes. Foods rich in calcium can help feed the bones which is important as we age such as tinned fish (including eating the bones), broccoli, tofu. Foods rich in folic acid can help with brain health, such as asparagus; green leafy vegetables plus oily fish for omega 3. Vitamin D is also important as we age which can aid bone health, whilst also helping with the absorption of calcium into the bones. Getting out into the sunshine for 20 minutes a day without sunscreen can aid vitamin D absorption. It can also be worthwhile getting your levels checked with your GP. Iron is also important for energy which may diminish as we age, slow cooked lamb or venison can help with digesting meats you may find otherwise hard to consume. Red meats will provide not only iron but also B12, which is important for energy, among many other pathways in the body.
Ways to help
Whether it’s because of physical limitations or financial hardship or lack of energy, you may find eating and enjoying food difficult. If one feels lonely this may also diminish the desire to eat. Finding a group to join where you can meet like-minded individuals to eat with can help or taking it in turn to have a ‘supper club’ at a friends house can encourage eating. Remember chewing your food well is important to aid digestion, plus taking a gentle walk before a meal can help stimulate the appetite, plus calm the mind. Lots of home-made soups are also a winner – both nutritious and easy to digest! Try to make food interesting, combining textures, such as greek yogurt with granola, with a handful of berries to make foods more appetizing.
For further help or advice contact Sarah Wragg
Nutritional Therapist BSc (Hons)
www.mattersforhealth.co.uk - 07702 492302
Over the last few weeks I have spent time getting to know Jean and she is keen for people to hear her story, so here it is:
Jean is a 90 year old lady who has weekly visits from one of our volunteers, called Mike. Jean describes how she didn’t feel mentally ready to move into a care home, but needed to for physical reasons. She does not see much of her family, as they spend a portion of the year out of the country, and felt cut off and in need of stimulation from the outside world. Jean is full of praise about the care she receives from staff, but she feels there are not many residents she can have a conversation with, and she can’t get out easily on her own.
Mike takes Jean for an hour’s walk along the River Thames; initially Jean walked with her walking aid, but latterly Mike has pushed her in a wheelchair. She describes how they have lovely chats: “We talk about things that we wouldn’t talk about in here. I feel like I am out in the normal world talking about different things. It’s normal and it’s lovely! I look forward to his visits all week”.
Jean explains how at one point as she was adjusting to life in a care home she starting having what she describes as a “meltdown”. She felt like she had no-one to talk to and no-one to tell. She channelled her emotional turmoil into painting and produced the picture below, that depicts herself in a storm, not knowing how to get out. She had not done much art before and found painting to be a therapeutic release. However, she also felt frustrated - she had wanted to paint really rough seas but didn’t know how to. She mentioned to Mike that she would love someone to help her develop her painting skills. Mike told Embracing Age staff and we put a request out on twitter, which a local artist responded to. Jean has now had two sessions with the artist, which she really enjoyed.
Jean says she couldn’t do without the volunteers she has from Embracing Age. She says that Mike has “filled the gap” and “transformed my life.”
I’ve been asked on a number of occasions how people can reduce their risk of getting dementia and I’ve found I’ve been hesitant to answer, perhaps because there are so many causes of dementia it’s difficult to know where to start.
But last week I had one of those light bulb moments of clarity. I was listening to a talk from the Head of Public Health England and he used the phrase, “What’s good for your heart is good for your head!” This makes so much sense, since vascular dementia has the same risk factors as heart disease and strokes. Plus there’s apparently increasing evidence that individual cases of dementia are often a mixture of Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
Most of us know what’s good for our heart: a healthy diet, regular exercise, don’t smoke and only drink in moderation. Now whether we live by those principles is another matter; six weeks since New Year and I’m sure most of our resolutions are a dim and distant memory. But perhaps if we realised we were helping our heads as well as our hearts we would have a bit more resolve.
If you want more information on dementia visit our webpage www.dementiaresources.org.uk
I decided last year that I wanted to do something selfless. I felt volunteering for a care home would be reasonably selfless; although not so selfless I wouldn’t enjoy it. I have been visiting residents in a care home for the past 5 months. I initially played games with the ladies: sometimes dominoes with an individual and sometimes scrabble with a group. I also took one of the ladies out to Kew Gardens for a walk which was pleasant.
I felt it would be nice to think of an activity which would bring the members of this home together, so I started doing a quiz. It took me a few weeks to realise their interests so that I could tailor the quiz to suit them. I still on occasion include questions which make references to modern concepts like Twitter and the #hashtag. The ladies have informed me that some of these words sound like a foreign language, so I know not to include such words in future quizzes.
The ladies are wonderful and have led amazing lives. One lady was a midwife, another lady was an architect and another was a teacher. Many of them are mothers and grandmothers and some are great grandmothers. Some of these ladies are able to recall what they were doing on a certain day 50 years ago, some of them have fantastic knowledge of history, one lady is in such great shape she takes her pet dog out many times a day for a walk. The residents have lived rich, full lives, and continue to do so. The women have such a lot of knowledge and life experience I learn a lot from them, they are also fun to be around and I thoroughly enjoy my visits. I have failed at finding an entirely selfless activity.