There’s something about Mary

In the latest of our series of blogs to mark Volunteers Week 2016, a retired teacher tells of the joy and friendship she has found and brought to her voluntary work:

I first found out about the work of the Care Homes Vanguard in Wakefield through St George’s Community Centre Health and Wellbeing Coordinator Sheena Woodard.

The Care Homes Vanguard is working with a local independent living scheme, run by Wakefield District Housing, and one of things they are doing there is consulting with tenants to find out what kind of activities they would like to be offered.

Once individuals have given their views, local community anchors – or community centres – are working to provide a range of activities, hobbies and interests.

I knew that volunteering to work with older people is something I would enjoy and that I could really make a difference to people’s lives and happiness.

Once I had signed up, Age UK Wakefield District and St George’s Health and Wellbeing programme offered me and the other volunteers training and an induction to prepare us for working with older people and for working in a care setting. They have been very supportive and have provided a lot of encouragement and support to all the volunteers for the Care Homes Vanguard.

Since going in to the independent living scheme, I have not only enjoyed getting to know the people who live there, I have also really enjoyed making connections with other volunteers and the staff who work there. I have developed some real friendships through this work and I always get a smiley welcome as soon as I arrive. The manager and staff have helped us to fit into the work that they are already doing, to enhance the environment and provide some support to them and their residents.

One of the activities the tenants had asked for more of is boccia bowling – a game similar to boules or petanque and chair-based – so we have been offering two-weekly sessions and inviting everyone to get involved.

The games are really lively, with lots of laughter and fun –a lot of teasing between players – and they all get quite competitive! Despite the competition, these games have really brought people together and helped them get to know each other better, so that during the rest of the week they feel closer and are more like friends and neighbours.

The element of this volunteering that I have enjoyed most is ‘befriending’ a lovely lady called Mary. Mary is registered blind and does have excellent family support from her daughters and granddaughters but they can’t be there 24/7 and she had been getting bored and lonely – so that’s where I come in.

Mary and I have developed a really good relationship and I have encouraged her to talk about her life story and her family. Although her memory is patchy, she has enjoyed telling me all about herself. We have got to know each other well, and I am familiar with her routine now. Mary loves to sing, and music is one of my passions, so she always has a song for me – sung word perfect and in tune!

Mary tells me about her love for dogs, and has photos of them in her flat. She often repeats:  “I loved them, and they loved me”.

After speaking to Mary and her daughter, and getting permission from the independent living scheme manager, I arranged to bring some dogs to visit. Twice a week, I take my elderly neighbour with her two delightful little dogs – which is an absolute joy for Mary!

One of the dogs is especially soft and loving, and thrives on the attention that Mary gives. He sits on her lap for 30 minutes, so Mary can cuddle and pet him, and she loves it when   licks her hands and face.

The transformation in Mary since I have been visiting with the dogs is wonderful to see, and makes my volunteering very rewarding. She is always laughing, constantly saying “how lovely” and talking about the dogs. She is also constantly saying “you are so kind” and “you will come back soon, won’t you?” – and I do! The first visit with my neighbour and the dogs ended in us all singing ‘Getting to Know You’, which we all enjoyed very much.

I am in contact with Mary’s daughter and have also got to know her quite well, she too is very grateful for the volunteering that I am doing and for the difference it is making to her mother’s wellbeing and quality of life. She loves her mother and says that she is amazed at the difference that ‘dog therapy’ has made to her mother’s life.

Mary has much more conversation with her family now – mostly about the dogs.

“It’s wonderful, she never stops talking about them”, her daughter told me this morning. This means the time Mary spends with her family is quality time. She is more like her old self and they see she is so much happier. This gives her daughters some reassurance and some peace of mind, as they know she is having a good time while they are not there. And her family have noted that her memory appears to have improved.

The volunteering that I am doing as part of the Wakefield Care Homes Vanguard project has had quite a big impact, it’s a win-win for me, for my neighbour, the dogs, Mary’s family and, most of all, for Mary.

I can’t wait for my next visit, with what Mary calls “the doggies”.

Janice Holt

Janice Holt is a retired teacher with a passion for music and a love of dogs.

She volunteered at St George’s Community Centre prior to working with the Care Homes Vanguard in Wakefield.

In addition, Janice also volunteers twice a week at a Wakefield District Housing Independent Living scheme.

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