Reflecting on the months since care home visiting ceased
Updated: Nov 2
Anna Chaplain, Eileen Simmons, from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, writes about her one to one interactions in a local care home with individual residents, most of whom have advanced dementia.
I am writing this article on 23 September, 2020, which, as a BBC news reporter reminded us, is exactly six months following the major COVID-19 national lockdown. This means that it is six months since I have been able to do my voluntary work in my local care home. During this time I have kept in touch and only yesterday spoke with the deputy manager, who was delighted to tell me that they are still COVID-free. All through this difficult period committed staff have managed effective prevention measures.
I started my voluntary role on 1 May 2018. I believe God calls us to do work by many different signs and prompts, and in my case it was because my long-term college friend had Alzheimer's. I felt that maybe I could contribute but was unsure as to how. In discussion with staff at the home it was suggested that to read to individual residents might be helpful. However, it soon became apparent that simply one-to-one interactions were what individuals needed.
My main work has always been with individual residents, but inevitably I also interact with families. Gudrun was the wife of resident David. She always told me she felt guilty, as she was no longer able to care for him at home, as when he fell over she could not lift him. I always reassured her that she had taken the right decision, as she was still giving him warm, loving care as she visited so regularly. Our relationship only lasted a few months until David died, but I did see her two or three months after his death when we were both shopping locally and we had a lovely conversation about the amazing care he had been given by the staff.
One day I had a delightful surprise whilst I was talking to Nora when her family arrived for a visit. As usual I greeted them and told Nora I would come to see her again next week. I moved on to another resident, but as I did so, Nora’s daughter asked me if I was Mrs Simmons (I simply wear a large badge with EILEEN on it), I said yes and she was pleased to reintroduce herself to me as the mother of youngsters from my school over 20 years ago.
I have so much missed my voluntary work over this last six months. As an Anna Chaplain I am committed to working with older people, so currently I work with Age Concern doing telephone befriending with individuals, some of whom have medical conditions, which means they are high risk. This work is interesting but my heart aches to return to my care home. One of my residents is normally totally silent and does not engage at all with other residents or staff. Ivy loved her cat and I would talk about ‘puss’ and very occasionally she would smile at me and said; 'It’s very nice to see you' and then went silent again. In the two years she normally has seemed peaceful and tranquil. Simply to be with her seems to be helpful. One day she looked at me and said, 'We do not see you very often these days.'
On reflection the benefit I seem to offer is that I have time. I can spend as long as is needed with an individual. Once Nancy became very agitated and cross with a member of staff, who tried to pacify her by saying that when she had been moved she could talk to Eileen. I did join her and was able to calm her as I was not making any demands. She really enjoyed talking about a whole range of personal issues, but over the two years there has been a marked deterioration in her coherence.
Most residents do not remember me from week to week, but one seemed to remember me right up to her death. She always said 'Hello dear' as soon as she saw me and I would always confirm that I would spend time with her. Most weeks she would ask me what I thought about the awful storm we had during the night and of how she came downstairs into the lounge, as she was unable to sleep through it. The same story was repeated of how police (or soldiers) arrived and stamped on her hands and broke her fingers. She also believed that she owned the care home. I simply listen and show interest. I think my Samaritan training from long ago helped.
Every interaction is different, a precious time between two individuals and I find it a real privilege to be able to make the visits. Currently I am not able go, but look forward to returning.
Eileen Simmons, Anna Chaplain
This article appears in the November 2020 edition of the Christians on Ageing Dementia Newsletter, No 56. Eileen explains that all names have been changed in the article: 'I always seek permission of the care home manager before offering for publication.'