Two things had a large impact on my early life, motor cars and the ages of my older relatives. Partly due to the spacing of the 2 world wars both myself and my father had been born when our fathers were in their mid forties. My grandfather was born in 1879 which made him 21 in the year 1900, a fact that I always found fascinating.
My grandfather had been apprenticed to a plumber at the age of 14 which gave him a skill and a trade that was in demand. He travelled from his parents home in the south of England up to Coventry in the English Midlands and joined the Humber Car Company in 1904. Even the small cars were hand made and the only people in those days with the skills to put together a car engine cooling system and radiator was a plumber!
When my grandfather died at the age of 91, I was 16 and immediately regretted not taking more notice of the stories of his life that were told so often but never written down.
My first contact with a person with dementia was my sisters mother in law who had to stay with us for a short time after she had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Still in my late teens I was horrified to see how annoyed other family members became with her when she seemed to repeat the same questions, and although I didn’t realize at the time that the questioning was continuous and persistent I did make a vow not to be as intolerant if I came across the disease again.
Many years later I became a volunteer in a large hospital and when asked to keep a lady of later years company who was a little distressed, I agreed.
She was a wonderful person who had experienced a full an exciting life, but could sadly remember little of it. Due to her dementia much of her vocabulary had disappeared as well and so had started substituting words for those she could no longer remember. I was confused for some minutes one day when she asked where her “eggs” were. I worked out that she meant shoes, and found that some well-meaning nurse had put them safely in a locker, but not being able to find them or explain her difficulty caused her a lot of stress.
I learned a lot from this lady and others like her, and tried to offer compassion and empathy whenever it was needed or appropriate.
After moving to Australia I still had an interest in hospital volunteering and so helped to set up the first hospital aged care ward volunteer group. Volunteers were strictly vetted for suitability and their tasks were just to give as much time and company to any patient as was asked for. It certainly isn’t revolutionary, but there is a skill in being with someone and listening to them without being judgmental or giving personal opinions. We found funding through a local “Lions” group to improve the patients Day Room to a less clinical and relaxing atmosphere. There are kitchen facilities for family members to make drinks, music systems with a very wide range of music covering all types and a dvd player with projector so that films can be shown “Cinema Style” on a big screen, so essential when there are vision impairments. An unexpected benefit of the big screen and being able to connect it to a computer is the ability to show patients their home town by using programs such as Google Earth. I have taken people on virtual walks through English towns that haven’t altered much since they were last there 50 years ago.
I now spend more of my time with the Dignity in Care group, but try to spend at least one morning a week volunteering with people who appreciate a sympathetic ear and a little empathy.