In the first of a series of blogs to mark Volunteers Week 2016, the chair and co-founder of a healthcare charity gives a moving example of how three million volunteers nationwide, who give their time freely to support healthy, welfare and disability organisations, are making a real difference:
The lady was very agitated. In the corridor outside her bay on the ward, her 50-year-old son was pacing up and down looking distraught.
From the abuse she was giving everyone, it was clear that he, along with the nursing staff and anyone else who went too close, were not welcome. He looked broken.
“I’m sorry,” he apologised, “but if I say anything to her, it only makes it worse. It’s so distressing.”
That afternoon I’d brought a group of young people from a local drama club to the ward, to read familiar stories or poetry to trigger long-term memories, especially for patients who had dementia.
Everyone over the age of 60 was taught classic poems by heart at school. Hearing them again not only helps them remember, it can also trigger memories of the time and place where they learned them. Memories of childhood, schooldays and a happier time often come flooding back. The reassurance they gain from hearing the familiar words can calm them down and makes them smile.
Swearing at anyone who came near her, and endlessly pacing up and down, this lady was having a profoundly negative effect on other patients, visitors and the ward staff. Some visitors were complaining. The nurses were doing their best, but her distressing cries were both upsetting and hugely distracting.
Gently, I explained to the man what we were doing that afternoon. Aware that turning up beside her with a poetry book might be the last thing she wanted, I simply asked him if knew of any poems or stories that his mother had enjoyed in the past. He looked at the books I was carrying and smiled when he saw our collection of Winnie the Pooh stories and poems.
“She used to read that to me,” he said simply. “It was a favourite for both of us.”
“Do you want us to give it a try?” I asked. “I think we might have a way of getting through to her.”
“Why not?” was his simple response.
I had an idea. I had a quick word with the senior nurse, and then beckoned to Harry, 16-years-old, with style and confidence well beyond his years. Indicating the lady, I asked if he would mind going into the bay with the book.
“I’ve checked and she’s not going to hurt you,” I explained. “She is just very unhappy and frightened. Think of her as a young child having a temper tantrum. Children do that when they are frightened and feel out of control. Don’t go ‘into her space’” I advised. “Just be close enough for her to see the book. Only talk to her if she shows any interest. I think it’s important that she feels in control.”
So he did. Standing by the window she watched him as he walked across the room, not making eye contact at that stage.
Staring first at him, and then his large book, the lady suddenly stopped shouting. He looked at her and smiled. And she smiled back. He offered her the book but she didn’t take it. We watched from outside the bay as she slowly moved closer.
After a few moments, we saw them both move back to her bedside. She sat down. Harry pulled up a chair. Gently he began to read. She looked mesmerised.
Beside me, her son had tears in his eyes. Gently he whispered: “That’s my mum as I want to remember her. I didn’t think I’d see her look like that again. All it took was a simple story.”
But I think there was more to it than that. What I was seeing, I believe, was a lady who, having lost her short-term memory, believed she was much younger. She may not have recognised her son as a 50-year-old man, but her emotions were still strong. As I watched the scene unfold, I was convinced she was gently flirting with Harry as she listened to the familiar words.
In other areas of the bay, visitors looked on and smiled, now free to concentrate on lifting the spirits of the patients they had come to visit. And that, of course, is hugely helpful to the nursing staff too who, feeling less distracted, now felt more able to concentrate on other things.
Winnie the Pooh and a charming young man had made that ward a calmer, safer place to be.
- Across the UK, Kissing it Better invites young people from universities, FE colleges and schools to use their talents to entertain mainly, older people in hospitals and care homes.
- For more information, see kissingitbetter.co.uk
- YouTube video: Kissing it Better – Manchester
- The story of our work with poetry that went around the world in four languages