Seniors Helping Seniors

 

Sally (far R) & Christian with some of their carers

The only advert that Christian and Sally Wilse ever used for their care service Seniors Helping Seniors appealed to those with “the heart of a volunteer”.  It was a clever idea that immediately weeded out anyone applying for the money.

“Applicants thought they were volunteering”, Sally explained to me when I visited her and her husband at their house in Canterbury. “It means you get those who really want to do it for what it is, not the salary”.

In fact “it” is a job that pays its carers £10.65 an hour.  Some 150 care providers on the roster have been fully checked and approved to work, with an average of 40 working each month.  Client and carer are carefully matched according to personalities, likes, dislikes, interests and chemistry, and clients pay £20.50 an hour.

Since that first advert five years ago, applicants for Seniors Helping Seniors have all come via local word of mouth (and the enterprise has a page on https://www.homecare.co.uk ).

Sixty-seven-year-old grandmother Pat Curtis of Herne Bay took redundancy from the Bank of America eight years ago.  When Sally appealed on Facebook for someone willing to devote a few hours a week to knitting with some of her clients, Pat was happy to oblige.

Carer Pat Curtis has crafting in her DNA

One of six siblings, she has crafting in her DNA and is a member of a knitting group called the Herne Bay Cosy Crew. Since working for Seniors Helping Seniors (a profit for purpose company), Pat has sourced small knitting needles for arthritic hands and says she always arrives at her clients’ houses “casted on”, whether this be for crocheting or knitting.

I accompanied her to see 84-year-old Gladys, who has dementia, at her Faversham home.  Pat calls in twice a week for an hour, in between social services visits.  When we arrived the TV was blaring in the corner, the remote too far away for Gladys to reach.  Unlike usual carers, those from Seniors Helping Seniors don’t wash or dress their clients or dispense medication: their role is that of supportive friend.

When Gladys isn’t up to knitting she holds the wool for Pat, who always makes them both a cup of tea as they sit and reminisce, look through the WI magazine or pot up a few plants.  I saw the power of this simple, human interaction as, TV turned off, the two of them chatted about Gladys’ family; Pat skilfully drawing her neatly turned out, grey-haired friend into the conversation as Gladys’ eyes lit up.  After each visit Pat messages Gladys’ daughters to let them know how she is.

Watching Pat and Gladys reminded me of my dad’s final years when he lived alone in an apartment originally intended for him and mum.  Mum’s dementia was exacerbated when we had to sell the family home and, instead of moving into the new flat, she was admitted to hospital for six weeks before entering a nursing home.

Dad visited her every day as his own health steadily deteriorated.   I lived over an hour away by car and my daughter was only seven, so to keep an eye on dad and provide him with company, I set up a coterie of informal carers.

There was 25-year-old Marius, a Polish charity worker (who’d had criminal record checks) and part-time waiter in dad’s favourite local restaurant.   My second world war veteran, Europhile dad and this young Pole were a perfect fit: they spoke French together, discussed history and where they might go for their next jaunt in dad’s clapped out old Mercedes (which I insured for Marius to drive).

When I became worried about dad’s diet I enlisted the help of Rosemary, a former pub landlady, who produced delicious lunches in dad’s kitchen which the two of them sat down to eat together.  Dad loved nothing more than gossiping over a meal with a glass of red until a series of strokes robbed him of his ability to swallow.

Confined to bed and fed by a tube, dad required specialist help and we employed trained carers, but Marius and Rosemary continued to visit.  They had become dad’s friends – an informal equivalent of Seniors Helping Seniors – providing support and human connection for my father in the transitory period before his medical demands became too much.

What Sally and Christian – and their US predecessor – have created in Seniors Helping Seniors (as I did in my own way for dad) is a 21st century paid-for model to take the place of close-knit communities, friends, neighbours and families.

It all began six years ago when, after successful media careers, Christian, then aged 54, and Sally, then 50, were made redundant. The couple decided they wanted to do something worthwhile with the rest of their lives.

Sally saw an advert in an inflight magazine headlined, “Looking for a few ordinary people with extraordinary hearts”.  It was promoting Seniors Helping Seniors as a 20-year-old US franchise business.  Inspired by the advert, Christian went to meet its founder, an inspirational woman who had worked for Mother Theresa – and in 2012 the idea for a UK version of the original American concept was born.

Sally explained how they sold their house, her husband completed care courses and the couple bought a master licence for the UK from Seniors Helping Seniors in the US.

Their first challenge was to refocus the model for the UK, where people plan ahead for their care far less than in America, where they pay for all their medical provision.  The couple have now sold (for £10,000 each) two Seniors Helping Seniors franchises, run by like-minded people to them, in Harrow and Guildford.

Carer Eileen with Peggy, one of her clients

Retired boarding school matron Eileen Connell has been working for the Canterbury company for four years.  One of her clients, 84-year-old Joan, has dementia and lives alone in her home.  Eileen visits Joan daily for two and a half hours.  When, last year, Eileen noticed that phone calls from Marion, one of Joan’s old friends, had dwindled, Eileen arranged to drive Joan from Canterbury to visit Marion in Crawley.

“Joan was delighted”, Eileen said.  “We all went out to lunch, where the two of them reminisced about shared holidays and adventures while looking at old photos”.  Joan’s feeling of wellbeing and happiness remained well after the visit.

Katherine Spencer, who at 53 is one of the younger helpers, has been in the caring profession since she was 16.  She joined the company last October because she was impressed by its ethos.  “At Seniors Helping Seniors its all about getting it right for the client.  It’s flexible work and I feel respected and nurtured as a carer”.

“It’s about trust,” Sally said.   “When choosing our carers we see the individual, the person behind the CV and match them with the right client.   Families want a fully managed care service where there is always a plan B and flexibility to deal with what life throws out.  Carers love that they can work guilt free, not rushing in and out of people’s homes or taking on too much”.

Seniors Helping Seniors wasn’t around for my dad.  However, I was lucky: Marius and Rosemary turned out to be honest, decent people.  But I won’t forget that heart-in-mouth moment when I entrusted the keys of dad’s apartment to a young Polish man I had interviewed once (albeit having studied his CV and background checks).

Sally and Christian Wilse spotted something good that was happening over the Pond, recognised its strengths, realised it fulfilled a growing need – as far-flung families, greater numbers of working women and increased life expectancy result in too many older people being left to fend for themselves – and decided to replicate it here.

What’s more, they put clients’ needs at the centre of their service and tailor it around them with carefully matched carers rather than creating a one-size-fits-all framework.  It’s neat, it’s simple, it works and – best of all – it can be replicated.  Let’s hope it is.

Christian & Sally Wilse wanted to do something worthwhile & founded Seniors Helping Seniors

 

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Thank you Barbara

Barbara Windsor in 2010, Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago as I wandered along a London street looking for a parking ticket machine, I saw an immaculately dressed, petite blonde I recognised.   “Hi,” I said.  “Hello,” she replied, giving me her trademark beaming smile.  It was only then that I realised the woman was Barbara Windsor – familiar, yes, but not known to me at all.  She could have ignored me (goodness knows how often this must have happened to her), but instead she graciously, kindly, considerately, put me at my ease.  Now it’s our turn to do this for her.

For the 80-year-old actress, famous for countless Carry On films and, latterly, EastEnders, has Alzheimer’s disease.   Four years after she was diagnosed and as her symptoms become more pronounced, her husband Scott Mitchell has decided to let the world know so that if, when she’s out and about, Barbara acts uncharacteristically, people will know why and “accept it for what it is”.

This is so, so important.  When entertainment royalty such as Dame Barbara Windsor go public about their dementia it makes headlines, generates discussion, raises awareness of a condition which, despite being the biggest killer of women in the UK, despite afflicting 850,000 people and despite costing the country £23bn a year, is still much misunderstood and shrouded in stigma.

In less than 48 hours Scott Mitchell’s announcement has projected the topic into everyone’s lives.  All the national newspapers carried the story, many with double-page spreads.  Yesterday evening Radio 4’s PM programme ran a lengthy interview with Formula 1 racing legend Sir Jackie Stewart, whose wife Helen has frontotemporal dementia.

He spoke informatively, fluently, personally and courageously about what Helen’s illness has meant for them in ways that will resonate with thousands of families up and down the country.  He described how, because of the wealth he’s accrued, he can afford specialist nurses for his wife whereas others, less affluent, less fortunate, cannot. Staggered to discover that there is no cure, Sir Jackie has launched a charity, Race Against Dementia, to fund research into the condition.

On the BBC Breakfast television show a panel including author Wendy Mitchell, who lives with Alzheimer’s, discussed Barbara Windsor’s diagnosis.  In just a few minutes several key points were beamed into households the length and breadth of the land.  The main, crucial, message being that with more knowledge of the condition, the public could better appreciate how it affects those who have it and show them more tolerance, more patience, more understanding.

Presenters Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty were well-informed about dementia and its broad-reaching impact on, not just the individual involved, but his or her family – no doubt aided by their previous encounter with Wendy Mitchell, who appeared on the show earlier this year talking about her book, Somebody I Used To Know.  They knew the right questions to ask – and they had the right people providing the answers.

Wendy Mitchell with her daughters Gemma & Sarah

I don’t know if she’s fully aware of it, but Wendy Mitchell is a journalist’s dream.  She speaks in near perfect (and unusually sensible) soundbites.  I say this – I hasten to add – in a spirit of awe and appreciation.  It is one of those things that seems so easy yet is very, very hard to achieve, particularly on live television in front of 1.5m viewers.

“Dementia is like a cruel game,” she said.  “Some days it throws a curved ball at you but because I’m such an optimistic person  I say that tomorrow might be better.  If you dwell on the sadness of bad days, it is a day lost of happiness”.   A day lost of happiness.  Her inversion of the words merely adds to the power of the sentiment.

Wendy’s fellow panellist Simon McDermott sprang to the nation’s attention two years ago when he uploaded YouTube videos of his father Ted (who has Alzheimer’s) singing in the car.  The films soon went viral and the Songaminute Man was born; Simon’s Just Giving page has to date raised over £130,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society.

Picking up on Scott Mitchell’s desire to let others know about Barbara’s condition so that they can understand her behaviour, Simon spoke of strangers’ kindness, of how they became more considerate and mindful of his father’s behaviour once they understood the reason for it.

Kathryn Smith of the Alzheimer’s Society added that if people understand about dementia they can look out for each other so that communities become dementia friendly.  “A little bit of kindness doesn’t hurt anybody”.

“It’s being people friendly”, added Wendy, accurately, succinctly – before, just for good measure, charming us all with one of her most endearing smiles.

On Radio 5 Live’s Breakfast Show Charmaine Hardy, wife of 69-year-old George who was diagnosed with a rare form of dementia called Primary Progressive Aphasia a decade ago, spoke eloquently about how it had affected both their lives.  She stressed that George’s memory was still perfect, which may come as a surprise to anyone who thinks that dementia is all about forgetfulness.  But her husband cannot speak or understand what is said to him.  He has lost his sequencing and problem solving skills, so cannot clean his teeth, feed, wash or dress himself and were he to come across a gate, he wouldn’t know what to do.

George, she told listeners (2.2m tune into the Breakfast Show each week), had been a top scientist.  Now Charmaine cannot turn her back on him for a minute for fear of what might happen.  When presenter Nicky Campbell asked her how it was for her, she paused and we could hear her intake of breath.  “It’s not easy, but I do my best for him”.  How much emotion was contained in those few words.  And, importantly, how much knowledge of this rare, less spoken of dementia, did this thoughtful, caring woman impart to the rest of us.

In an echo of the devastating condition itself – whereby a single diagnosis has an overwhelming impact, on not just one individual but an entire family – when a celebrity and his or her loved ones decide to go public with a dementia diagnosis, the benefits ripple outwards, causing a cumulative, positive effect.

It is all part of the soft power of culture.  Slowly but surely as more and more of those in the spotlight choose to speak out – think of author Terry Pratchett, actress Prunella Scales (who, together with her husband Timothy West, has featured in seven television series about the couple’s canal boat trips following her diagnosis), Sir Jackie Stewart and his wife Helen – the public’s knowledge and awareness of dementia grows, silence gives way to understanding, fear subsides, stigma fades.

The famous have a platform and unrivalled power to use their well-trained voices.  But dementia – as anyone who has it or whose loved ones have it, knows only too well – is also very personal, involving complex, competing emotions.  It takes a brave spirit to talk out.

Fifty-five-year-old Scott Mitchell expressed this in the Times when he explained that, though his wife was aware that he was making her diagnosis public, Barbara may forget she gave him her blessing to do so.  In which case, he said, “I’ll just have to deal with that”.  Along with everything else – the frustration, grief, anger, bewilderment, exhaustion and guilt – which, you and I know only too well, he is going through right now.

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The Little China Clogs

Apprentices Clare and Hilary with Rio at the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today reminiscence session

It’s not often that you get to travel the world on a Monday but recently I did just that, escaping to the sun of Barbados and the oriental delights of China via Brighton, Southend and Cuba (my geography was always appalling) then zooming back to my childhood via a pair of tiny blue and white china clogs (of which more later). 

I met Rio and her husband Tony driving to Turkey in their car.  They’d loaded it up with suitcases, stashed their chocolates in the front so they didn’t get squashed and then set off for Salzburg, Bulgaria and Istanbul, where they’d had to give a backhander to the police. 

It was quite an afternoon.  In fact, I was at a reminiscence session for people with dementia and their family carers in Belsize Park, London.  A mood of inclusivity, sensitivity, warmth and sheer good fun permeated the place, producing a world devoid of labels, of them (with dementia) and us (without), unencumbered by bureaucracy, titles or paperwork.  A world built on human connections.

Tony and Rio’s car was formed of four chairs.  The suitcases were empty props. The chocolates were imagined.  But we were there, with them.  Transported back in time to when the couple used to travel through Europe with a motor full of clothes to sell in markets and bazaars.  Rio, it turns out, sailed to America on the QE2 not once, but twice.  Tony didn’t go “because he couldn’t afford it”.  When the pair started singing New York, New York, at first Rio couldn’t remember the words but with a little coaxing from her man and encouraging smiles from friendly faces, she was soon belting out the lyrics.  It was wonderful to watch.  Reminiscence therapy – using that day’s theme of holidays and travel – at its very best. 

There were over 30 of us sharing memories, singing I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside, acting out vignettes of our travels and our lives and – when the picnic was produced – enjoying ice-cream cones and homemade drizzle cake, as well as Chinese treats. 

When I introduced myself to 82-year-old Gloria she enveloped me in her arms.  This warm, expansive Barbadian developed dementia about seven years ago and has been living with her daughter Natasha in Kentish Town for the last six.   

The two of them have been coming to the weekly two-hour sessions for ten weeks and Natasha explained that it offers her mum friendship and social interaction while also stimulating her memories.  “It changes her mood – she is happy and jovial for a couple of hours afterwards and on the way home she is very talkative. She may not remember the session but she knows it gives her a good feeling”. 

It also, quite obviously, benefits 47-year-old Natasha, who gave up her job as a team leader in customer services to care for her mum.  “I do find it difficult and some days I cry my eyes out.  You feel isolated so coming here helps because you don’t feel like you are the only person in the world going through this.  The group gives mum and I laughter, the best medicine of all”. 

Angela used to come with her husband Kenneth before he died last September, just before his 80th birthday.   Having suffered a brain haemorrhage 15 years previously, he then slowly developed dementia.  The couple had been married for 57 years and Angela told me that attending the reminiscence project was wonderful because when they were at home so many things were geared towards Kenneth but the sessions were for them both, as a couple.  She left it for a few months after her husband died but then thought she’d like to have the experience “from the other side”, as a volunteer.  She’s found it cathartic and, like me, believes it’s all very cleverly done. 

The seeming spontaneity of the Remembering Yesterday, Caring Today afternoons belies the tremendous thought and expertise that goes into their preparation.  I arrived an hour before the afternoon kicked off, but already people were loading tables with shells, postcards, sun hats, (blue) passports and origami boats.  Three of them were volunteers, the rest were apprentices learning the reminiscence techniques developed by Pam Schweitzer, a woman whose contribution to the field of reminiscence and dementia earned her, in 2000, an MBE.

Initially a theatre director, she found herself drawn to reminiscence work and in 1983 founded the Age Exchange Theatre Trust, creating and directing 30 professional productions based on older people’s memories that toured nationally and internationally.  Four years later Pam opened the world’s first reminiscence centre in London, providing a focus for training, and in 1993, she founded the European Reminiscence Network with partners in 16 European countries. 

Pam Schweitzer in holiday mode

Talking to Pam, watching her as she leads the apprentices and volunteers in a warm-up session to loosen their joints and vocal chords before the attendees arrive, it is obvious she’s a born leader.  She knows how to project her voice, how to run a show, how to draw people out.

She also has a vision and a strategy, setting up the apprenticeship scheme six years  ago to ensure that the reminiscence project can advance without her (though hard to believe, she is now into her 70s).  The apprentices attend two-day training courses across Europe and beyond (there are schemes in Japan, Singapore, America and Canada).  Trainees attend 12 sessions and submit a 3,000 word essay to show what they have learnt before becoming accredited facilitators of the European Reminiscence Network.

The two day course costs £120, as does the 12 week apprenticeship scheme with debriefs and mentoring support.  The network has received £10,000 from the Big Lottery and smaller amounts from Camden Carers, Westminster Arts and the Greenwich Dementia Action Group.

Apprentice and horticultural therapist Rosie Hollands told me that week by week she sees people with dementia “opening out and relaxing”, adding that you never know what’s going to trigger a memory.

That’s certainly true.  On Gloria and Natasha’s table, among the postcards and shells was a memento I recognised immediately.  As soon as I saw it I was ten again, standing on my bed, reaching up to slide open the glass fronted cabinet and pull out a tiny pair of blue and white china clogs.  I’d not thought of them for over half a century. 

On a warm March afternoon in 2018 I cradled the miniature shoes in my palm, weighing the memories – of mum and dad, my much older sister with whom I’d once shared my room, our matching rose-sprigged eiderdowns – letting the smells and emotions wash over and through me, transporting me back to my childhood.  It was a magical, unexpected moment that brought home to me, quite literally, the power of reminiscence therapy.  I knew that if I ever reached the stage where I could no longer remember much of my past, or the significance of those little shoes, the sight and touch of them would forever evoke in me happiness, security and love. 

The next training and apprenticeship scheme starts on 14 May, and details can be found here.

Natasha and her mum Gloria, holding the little china clogs

  

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Old Fools

Mark Arends & Frances Grey give stunning performances in Tristan Bernays’ Old Fools at the Southwark Playhouse

Two people, a piano stool and Tristan Bernays’ script are all that constitute Old Fools, currently playing at the Southwark Playhouse, and there isn’t even a linear plot.  Yet somehow, in just 60 minutes, we’re taken into the world of Vivian and Tom, from their first flirtatious dance, through the trials of early careers to the ups and downs of parenthood and his short-lived affair, which nearly splits them apart.  It doesn’t, they make up, because at the end of the day, they love each other.  But then Tom develops dementia and there is, for Vivian, “nothing left for me to love”.

It is a brave, raw piece that makes the audience work.  And laugh and cry.  It is both tender and brutal.  It is, says Bernays, a relationship play in which one of the characters happens to have dementia.

He may not know it, but Bernays could have been speaking at an Alzheimer’s conference.  He’s seen and drawn the man, Tom – with his precarious, impecunious musician’s career, his dreams and loves (of his partner and their daughter) and his selfish, thoughtless flaws – not the condition.   He has portrayed, too, the wife, the translator, the lover-turned-carer-turned-who-knows-what whose sense of self and identity is as broken and lost as that of her partner.   “I can’t do this anymore Tom,” she tells the man who once had the power to make her melt and who now sits, curled in a care home, silent, head bent, gripping her hand until she cries out in pain.  “If I keep coming here there will be nothing of me left”.  This is dementia in all its destructive, ugly truth.

 

Mark Arends & Frances Grey in Old Fools

 

Incredibly, there are also moments of lightness and laughter, of witty banter between the two of them in their earlier days.  “I’ll call you.”  “Call me what?”  “Beautiful”.  Vivian is, of course, a linguist.   And it’s words, language eliding, slipping and sliding that guide us, the audience, through the choppy, time-travelling waters of this play.  There is nothing else – no costume changes, no scenery, just two extraordinary young actors in Mark Arends and Frances Grey, breathing life into Bernays’ lines.

After he betrays her, Vivian throws Tom out.  Devastated at what he’s done he pleads to come back home to be with Viv and their daughter.  Home, for Tom, is “you and me and us and Alice” – an often repeated refrain.  Home is wherever they are – this too has a poignancy for anyone whose life has been touched by dementia.  Those with the condition and their families often speak of “coming home” when they are with people they love in a safe, understanding environment.

The other constant echo, the soundtrack to the couple’s lives, is the song to which they are dancing when they first meet, and when we first meet them – Fred Astaire’s “The Way You Look Tonight”.   It is the song, the soul note, to which the pair of them keep coming back, to which Tom, even with his advanced dementia, will always connect.  Its lyrics, set to the familiar haunting tune, are almost unbearably pertinent in the context of Tom’s failing mind.  “Some day, when I’m awfully low, When the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you”.

But will he?  Will she?  How much of what they’ve accrued over a lifetime together, will remain?  At the heart of this intense, challenging play is what dementia does to a relationship.  What is left when memories go?

It ends with the two of them locked in an embrace.   They are still, just, dancing together to their song, but he’s forgotten the words.  The record may keep turning, but the next step for Tom – as his medical consultant tells him – is not as simple as that.  Each case of this most feared and misunderstood condition is unique and unpredictable.

Old Fools, produced in association with Alzheimer’s Research UK, reminds us all, not just how “really bloody hard” all relationships are (to quote Bernays), but of the painful human cost of dementia, a condition that has only relatively recently come to public attention despite being the biggest killer in the UK.

It is wonderful that producer and director Sharon Burrell, To The Moon and Making Productions believed in Bernays’ short, bitter-sweet play (he describes it as “heart-warming and heart-breaking and I’d go with that) – and impressive that Arends and Grey turn in such deft, nuanced performances in the most intimate, exposed, and unforgiving of arenas.

Plays such as Old Fools, Florian Zeller’s The Father, Matthew Seager’s In Other Words, Inspector Sands’ The Lounge, all of which I’ve reviewed, bring the thorny subject of dementia quite literally into the spotlight, centre stage.  They raise awareness of it, reduce the stigma surrounding it, inform the public about it in brilliant, shocking, creative ways.  And I applaud them all.

 

Old Fools plays until 7 April at Southwark Playhouse & you can book tickets here. 

 

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