Big Ian. The name fits him like a supersize glove. Ian Donaghy, all 6ft 2ins of him, has big ideas, huge energy and a massive Geordie heart. Many of you will know him through his Twitter handle @trainingcarers.
As we walked together round the grounds of York university in the golden autumn sun, my cockapoo Bert tugging at the lead, Ian told me his story. It’s an unorthodox one and he’s a difficult man to define: speaker, author, trainer of care staff, erstwhile teacher, with a spell working for the Home Office. “I’m an outsider in everything I do. Even when it looks as though I’m on the inside, I’m not. My only agenda is to make things better, to make people better. It’s straightforward”.
His latest venture is an online campaign #DEMENTIAisAteamGAME, launched with a series of short, powerful films highlighting the fact that the condition isn’t one person’s or one care home’s business but a challenge – a team game – in which we all have a part to play. “As a community we can either be part of the problem or the solution,” says Ian.
Roy, a 94-year-old living with dementia, has a dream to score a goal for Notts County. If you want to put a smile on your face, click play. This little bit of magic has already had over 2 million hits.
The films are a culmination of Ian’s strengths as a maverick, inspirational storyteller. He attributes their success largely to the musicality of his script. “I know how to make somebody laugh, cry, get angry, and that’s how change happens”.
Take a look at this one about 88-year-old Hal from Redcar, who can Skype, do emails and is “still a canny dancer”. In one week it had over 1,600 views.
There’s no doubt that Ian’s way with language is extraordinary, as shown in his two books. Dear Dementia is packed with bite-sized chunks of wisdom delivered in Ian’s inimitable style – “Dear Dementia, total strangers undress me, shower me and put me to bed without introducing themselves. Lasses never used to be so forward”.
The Missing Peace, which came out this year, is more structured. Ian describes it as a patchwork quilt of conversations, letters, monologues and stories to explain the bespoke survival kits people have created to survive grief. It’s not about death, he says. “It’s about life and how to be the friend you would love to have. It is about living today not tomorrow”.
Yet Ian, though a proven writer, is very much a doer. He’s also a musician and entertainer who’s “filled theatres for 30 years” and sung with the biggest names around, including James Blunt, Lulu and Justin Timberlake. He keeps this side of his life separate from his care work because some people discriminate against him for it, thinking (wrongly) that he can’t be both.
In fact, it’s the diverse aspects that make him who he is that also inform all he does. Broadcaster Angela Rippon describes him as a “powerhouse of ideas, which he then brings to life”.
Forty-eight-year old Ian was born in Tow Law, County Durham. Following a stint as a 28st doorman he took himself off to university to train to become a teacher, embarking on his career at a school for children with special needs in York. “The students taught me more than I ever taught them,” he says. “They taught me not what to do but how to do it”.
It was to prove the guiding light in his life. The big man doesn’t lecture people, he draws out their potential – starting with the children at Fulford Cross where individual lesson plans (IEPs), worked out between the student, his or her family and the school, ensured that every decision placed the individual at its centre. Sound familiar? It’s good old person-centred care of course.
Unsurprisingly, in 2000 he was headhunted by the Home Office to implement in-school inclusion units to give a second chance to youngsters who had been excluded. In one area under his watch, the number of permanent exclusions fell from 13 to zero in a year. How did he do it? He taught the students for 30 lessons a week with no “frees” for himself and never had a cup of tea in the staff room, instead spending every break with the kids, “so I was always in credit with them because I listened to them.”
In 2010 Ian was headhunted again – by a leading figure in the care sector who wanted him to replicate in the care world the positive impact he was having in the educational field. Ian being Ian, he quit his job as a senior teacher, rolled up his sleeves, donned an apron and plastic gloves to experience life as a carer.
Inundated with work in hospitals, clinical commissioning groups and GP surgeries, in 2012 he set up his own company, Training for Carers (now morphed into bigian.co.uk – because everyone knows him simply as Big Ian). He also became a regular on the speaking circuit, lauded for his infectious enthusiasm and thought-provoking delivery.
He works with numerous organisations including Wren Hall nursing home and Landermeads care home in Nottingham, both of whom he describes as outstanding. When I ask him to define excellent care he says it’s when the provider puts the individual at the centre of the wheel, when carers care “not only for the people in front of them but for one another, so that it feels like a community, not them and us”.
It’s clear that Ian Donaghy is a big personality with his own way of doing things. But there is also a softer side to him, as shown by A Night To Remember, the event he established in memory of his mum, whose death from cancer in 2009 was pivotal in his life.
“Before that I was focussed on things that didn’t matter – I liked fast cars and money. Suddenly I realised they don’t matter: when you lose somebody you love, you get clarity, you filter out the rubbish”. Now he wants to use the “rather odd” gifts he’s been given to make a difference for others.
Over the past five years A Night to Remember, in which Ian brings together the cream of York’s musicians, has raised £130,000 for charity – initially cancer charities and now dementia. The last one, at York’s 1,800-seater Barbican theatre, was packed to the rafters.
Other projects include Xmas Presence, a “family Christmas Day” for older people and those with dementia that’s been held in York for the past four years. Rather than giving up their Christmas Day to do it, Ian says those who help out – he calls them his “handful of diamonds” – get Christmas back.
And then there’s Forever Young, a festival of music bringing generations together that’s held at York’s Grimston Court care home. Ian describes it as “the Great British Bake Off with guitars.” This year it raised £7,000 for Age UK York and St Leonard’s hospice; its finale featured a ten-decade band with members ranging in age from ten to 92. It’s broken down barriers and changed the way people view care homes, elderly loneliness and dementia.
The list of Ian’s roles and activities seems endless. Even he’s not sure of the tally. “It’s just one bloke and a mobile phone,” he says with unusual understatement, before adding that he’s surrounded by incredible people who help him make things happen.
He tells me he’s happy now because he’s “completely on the rails”, everything he thinks, says and does completely overlaps. They’ve all come together in the #DEMENTIAisAteamGame campaign. “I’ve got a voice now and I want to give a voice to the people who maybe’s haven’t. It’s not a bad little mission to have is it?”
No Ian, it’s not.