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Dancing with dementia – Devon Life August 2013

Arranging flowers on the terrace

Arranging flowers on the terrace

 

Outside the theater in Sidmouth

Outside the theater in Sidmouth

A quiet chat after a pampering session in the salon

A quiet chat after a pampering session in the salon

Harry Plants a tree in memory of his friend Irene

Harry Plants a tree in memory of his friend Irene

Free range day for the chickens

Free range day for the chickens

Volunteering in town for Exmouth in Bloom

Volunteering in town for Exmouth in Bloom

Dennis wins again at Lawn Bowls

Dennis wins again at Lawn Bowls

Weekly Choir practice

Weekly Choir practice

Harry is in the garden early today. He has been gardening most days throughout the winter but now that the weather is getting better he is particularly keen to be outside. He is methodically spreading the contents of a couple of compost heaps over the lawn. He is grading the lawn as he feels the slope is too steep and bumpy for some people. If it stays dry then this afternoon he will be burning wood and garden rubbish in his fire pit – by far his favourite occupation. Harry wants to make a contribution and help the other people in his community, it’s what gets him up in the morning. He has been offered money for his gardening services but says ‘No you don’t understand – it would just spoil things for me’.  Harry also loves to teach pupils from the local Beacon School when they come to help the community grow vegetables during the growing season. And as a member of the gardening club he joins the other members to plant out and maintain a couple of the raised beds in town as part of  ‘Exmouth in Bloom’, and he usually bumps into old friends when in town. Harry has a lot of friends!

 Gerry and Betty are holding hands while playing darts in the darts room. Both are relatively new to the community and it’s great to have someone to help you find your way. Before Betty came here she cleverly negotiated the purchase of a cockateel and now Sinbad wakes her up every morning. She then brings him into the lounge where she can show him off to everyone. For Betty, having a cockateel to care for makes all the difference to her enjoyment of life, and helps to overcome the feeling of loss since her husband died. Sinbad is the latest animal addition and he joins the chickens, doves, cats, birds, fish, and the wild pigeons and squirrels that have made the garden their home. Betty loves to look smart and enjoys going to the salon to have her hair done and be pampered with beauty treatments. She delights in joining staff for their smoking breaks and stays in touch with all the gossip – she knows the names of quite a few people now and remembers that Jamie the cook is getting married soon.

 

Gerry only came to stay for a couple of weeks respite after falls at home and at the end he decided he would like to stay a little longer, perhaps for ever.  People who know him well comment on how much happier he is now, they say it’s like ‘having the old Gerry back’. Gerry has many stories to tell of his interesting life and likes to show people his photo album which his daughter has put together for him. Being around other people and being loved and appreciated is helping him to feel good about life and he regularly flashes his most charming smile, never more so than when dancing with his lady friends.

 

Rene has found life difficult after his wife died last year and he keeps himself quite busy, using humour to cheer himself and others up. He likes to tidy up the garden at the end of the day, putting away chairs and clearing the tables. He also helps by going into the kitchen and doing the dishes. When asked why he does this he simply says ‘Well I live here so I have  to look after it’. The death of his wife has caused him to reflect on his life and he has decided that he would like to visit his home town of Spontin in Belgium where he grew up. His passport has expired so a couple of weeks ago he went to London to have it renewed – they were very helpful and made a special appointment outside the normal opening hours, and Rene completed the application form in French, his native language.  He recently wrote to the mayor of Spontin to let him know he’s coming to visit later this year. Today he is looking forward to a visit from his friend Monica who lives in Calfifornia and whom he recently contacted after finding old letters. There is no easy way through grief but having things to look forward to, keeping busy, and knowing he has friends that rely on him does help.

 

Authority comes natural to Dennis as he used to be a local bank manager. ‘Well done the workers’ is one of his favourite catch-phrases. He is very fit and  stays active (daily walks, exercise classes, bowling and darts competitions, choir, rambles, outings etc) but his default position is in the TV lounge where he controls the all important remote. Dennis is, by general consensus, in charge of the TV lounge and most have accepted his authority and are calmed by it. At the end of the day he asks for the lounge door to be closed so he can draw the curtains. Dennis is very competitive and he treasures the lawn bowls trophy he won last year. Buying a lottery ticket is another favourite passtime , and we are thinking perhaps in future he can help the community to place some bets on horse races, especially when the race is on TV so we can all cheer our horse.

 

Meg, Ethel, Joy, Doreen, and Philippa are folding napkins for lunch. There is something very peaceful and magical about women working together in this way. Setting tables, preparing vegetables harvested from the garden, arranging flowers, making a quilt patchwork, weeding a flower bed, brushing the terrace. The old familiar rituals of daily life are comforting and can trigger so many memories. At times the discussion flows naturally. At other times they work together in quiet and shared enjoyment, focused completely on the job at hand.

 

The choir practice is in full swing. It meets for practice every week and sometimes the choir and drama club get invited to perform in local churches which makes for a great outing and reminds people they still bring joy to other people’s lives. Chanda is a very energetic choir leader and quite demanding! She keeps the programme fresh and the choir has just started to learn  ‘Jerusalem’.  This is technically quite a difficult song with a lot of emotional connection to things like the WI,  the last night of the proms, and what it means to be British. A couple of people get a little choked up as they connect with the song. Music is an important part of life here as it brings out so many  emotions and memories, even for those who can no longer actively participate.

 

These are just a few snippets of daily life at Rose Lodge, a small social club and retirement community in a secluded corner of Exmouth. Nothing surprising you may say, just a group of people being active and sociable, living in the present with dignity and enjoyment, and living the best they can with the suffering and pain that are part of all our lives. Look closer though and you notice that all the residents and social club members live with dementia. They are doing something quite remarkable, demonstrating how to dance with dementia by living in the present as part of an active sociable community.

 

People with dementia leading meaningful happy lives ? Words like Meaning and Happiness are not usually associated with dementia, and to some these notions are heretical, insulting even, and trivialising the condition. And yet meaning and happiness are palpably real and present – obvious to anyone that looks closely and beyond their own suffering. This small community poses a quiet but powerful challenge to our affluent and civilised society: Why do we allow for quite so many people with dementia to live their lives in utter confusion and isolation, to live their lives in quiet desperation ?

 

Harry is joining the funeral for Irene who passed away a couple of weeks ago and who was a dear friend of his at Rose Lodge. When asked if he would like to join the funeral his response was ‘ Well I don’t remember her but if she was my friend then I would like to come and say goodbye’. Is there a more elegant way to live in the present and dance with dementia ?

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