Since September, I have been volunteering at a day centre for dementia patients on a Friday morning. This is something I really enjoy every week – getting out of school into a new environment, being able to help give the carers a break and of course, being able to communicate with new people. However for me, it is much more than this. It is incredible being able to see how much my presence brightens the patients day, even if by the next week they have forgotten who I am entirely. I have had countless heartwarming conversations with people who love talking about what they can remember; their schools, the war, their jobs, but who also love finding out what it is I’ve been up to and how things have changed since then. Aside from this, being able to prompt their memories in a safe environment is really rewarding, as they have all had incredibly interesting lives, and they smile and laugh as they remember things themselves.
However, this week was a little different and slightly more challenging. While of course, each patient has very individual needs and has differing stages of dementia, up until now they have all been able to talk to me during my time there. Although, a new lady now attends the centre on a Friday, who not only has dementia and is confused about where she is both in time and physically, but no longer has teeth so is very difficult to understand.
At first I’ll admit it was a little daunting, and I felt really empathetic as she was obviously initially very distressed. However, after a couple of games and some encouragement from her friend and member of staff, it was lovely to see her laughing and smiling too. What I learnt specifically from this volunteering session, is that patients do not need words to be able to respond to you, and that actually it really doesn’t matter if they can’t. This lady loved having me talk to and laugh with her, and would light up occasionally on the topic of food! An integral part of care in such an environment is taking the time to get to know each individual, and to be someone who is flexible, adapting to each unusual question or situation which may arise.
It is very easy to forget that elderly dementia patients had lives before their diagnosis, and helping them remember that is a key part of caring for them. We play numerous memory games and quizzes, and while some engage more than others it is lovely to find out more and more about each person who attends the centre. Too much of the time the media is obsessed with the few care homes or centres with corrupt individuals and inadequate care, and until I myself started volunteering I didn’t realise how much of a positive environment these places can be.
I would recommend this form of work experience to everyone, it is something I was never sure I would enjoy but always wanted to try, and is now the only thing which gets me through double maths on a Friday morning! For me, this is not about getting experience in a healthcare environment anymore, it is about being able to make a difference to a persons day, to give the carers who work numerous days at a time a bit of a break and an opportunity to do some paperwork, but mainly to engage with people who rarely meet new people and are always so grateful for my time.