Laura Mills loves her job. Laura is Customer Liaison Manager at Ferrars Hall Care Home in Huntingdon. She has been in post only seven months, but her passion for the work shines through. “I just cannot imagine ever doing anything else” she said, “I just love it. I love talking to the residents, finding out about their lives, making them laugh, sitting with them when they are sad. And I love working with their families. I get to know them before their relative moves to Ferrars Hall and I help settle people in, and that relationship continues. It’s very important that relatives are involved in their loved one’s care, and that they contribute to the life of the care home. I feel that we are all part of one big family. We all get along together, and this enriches the lives of the staff as well as the residents”.
Laura invited me to give a talk about dementia and the work of Unforgettable to an audience of relatives of people living at Ferrars Hall, and also local residents who had been invited to attend.
When I arrived, last Friday morning, I was greeted at the door by Julie Britten, the Manager. She was very welcoming and, in the brief time we had before my talk began, I learnt that Julie has a wealth of experience in care. This is the seventh care home that she has worked in and it was clear to me that she was at ease with her responsibilities.
Ferrars Hall is a purpose-built home, well designed with bright airy hallways, communal rooms with views and lots of natural light. The care home has three levels, the ground floor is the dementia unit, the first floor accommodates people with physical frailties and on the top floor are people with complex needs. The home has a well-tended garden providing a safe outdoor space for residents to walk freely and aviary.
The talk I was giving was to be held in the cinema and I was pleased to be served with a coffee at the start. I spoke about Unforgettable, referring to James Ashwell’s story of caring for his Mum with frontotemporal dementia and explaining how his experiences had inspired him to establish Unforgettable as a marketplace for products that would answer people’s needs, products that he had found helpful when he was caring for his Mum, and other products which he would have found helpful if he had known about them or if they existed at the time.
I also spoke about the impact that dementia had had on my family: my father-in-law’s decline with vascular dementia in the 1980s; my mother-in-law’s struggle with Alzheimer’s in the early 2000s; and my father’s recent assessment at the local memory service, the results of which we await.
Personal stories are so powerful: they convey the realities of life with dementia.
Most of the people who attended the event were relatives of residents at Ferrars Hall. They had specific questions about dementia and were keen to understand some of the behaviours associated with the condition. There was some thoughtful discussion about relationships and the difficulties of fragmented families. We talked about ‘best hopes’ and how relatives could make the most of time spent with their ‘loved ones’.
“I just want her to be happy” was the wish of one gentleman, speaking about his mother.
Julie revealed her own personal situation: her mother has dementia and she lives in a care home. Julie has faced similar challenges and dilemmas to the families of the residents at Ferrars Hall. She can empathise with their heartbreak when their relative is agitated, anxious and distressed
“But what does ‘happy’ look like?” she asked. “Happiness means different things to different people. A person can be contented, settled, smiling, but it’s impossible to know whether they are ‘happy’. I never can tell with my Mum, I don’t think I have actually ever known whether, in her life, she was happy”.
This resonated with one man in the room who said of his mother: ‘She always was a ‘glass half empty person’ so I imagine that she still is”.
Julie spoke about her ideas for creating a resources box for relatives to promote ‘A different kind of visit’. Influenced by her knowledge and practice of the Montessori approach to dementia care, Julie explained that this resources box might include a wallpaper sample book as the focus of connection with a resident – “we are thinking about decorating our living room, can you help me choose some wallpaper?” – or some fabric swatches, knitting patterns, maps, catalogues, recipe books. Prompts for conversations about everyday life.
The insight in the group was that, for people who live at Ferrars Hall, the care home is, of course, their home, and relatives need to think of it in that way. The mind shift is: rather thinking about their visit as ‘visiting Mum in a care home’ they should think of the visit as ‘spending time with Mum in her own home’. This puts a different complexion on connecting with the resident.
Once the Q&A session as complete, Laura gave me a guided tour of the care home and I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet some of the residents.
I spoke with Agnes and her daughter. Agnes was stroking a cuddly dog with delight. “He’s lovely” she said “if you want him you can have him” she generously offered.
I had lunch with residents on the third floor, sharing a table with Josie who was wearing a sparkly knitted jumper which I complimented her on. “I knitted it myself” she proclaimed “it’s about 30 years old. I still knit, I always have. My mother and my grandmother always used to say ‘never sit twiddling your thumbs, do something productive with your hands’. My grandmother taught me to knit, and I’m still knitting. I enjoy it and it keeps me busy”.
I met Dorothy who told me all about being a ‘Fen Tiger’. Hailing from Warboys, Dorothy regaled everyone present with the story about the Fenland farmers who planted rows and rows of crops only for the sea to wash them all away.
Laura introduced me to Annie Paynter, the activities co-ordinator for Ferrars Hall, but were distracted by Peggy who came to join us. Almost in tears she said “Someone was looking after me but they’ve gone. I don’t know where they’ve gone. I’m on my own”. Laura comforted her with reassurance and compassion. “Come and sit with us” she said. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you”. Peggy then became the focus of attention. “I feel frightened” she said, “I’m all alone and I often feel very frightened, especially at night”. Laura chatted to her about her nephew, who often came to visit. Peggy soon cheered up. “It’s so nice living here” she said, “I am very lucky to have you all as my friends”. We were present with Peggy. (I can always talk to Annie some other time, I thought).
When I left, Agnes was alone in the same chair, having a little nap whilst holding close to her a soft therapy doll. She looked tranquil and beautiful.
I was grateful to Laura and Julie for making me feel comfortable and at home at Ferrars Hall. I was glad, as well, to meet Alim Thobani, Director of Group Functions for Country Court Care, the parent company for the care home group. Alim listened intently to my talk and witnessed the questions and discussion with the relatives. We had a promising conversation at the end about the potential for collaboration going forwards.
What a privilege this day felt to be, the opportunity to gain a glimpse into lives of the special, strong, resilient people who live and work in this thriving care home community. In common with Laura, I, too, love my job.
Names of residents have been changed for confidentiality reasons.