Times' comments: A reader's volunteering experience
PUBLISHED: 08:30 26 May 2019
Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Times' readers this week.
Michael Stanford, Watford Road, Wembley, writes:
I was a boy when I first came across dementia. My grandmother had been in hospital for some time and my father had chosen until then to visit her alone.
He warned me she wasn't feeling herself in that protective anodyne way that parents often shield their children from life's realities.
I remember gran pulling my father close and asking him who I was in a voice shaking with confusion.
I was thinking the same thing and couldn't understand what was wrong with her or the fact that this was the same woman, who a couple of years earlier, had molly-coddled me.
Adults appear invincible when you are young and when these giants of your world stumble and fall it is difficult to understand.
This experience was echoed more recently when I found my 94-year-old neighbour wandering outside in the small hours of the morning.
Rose didn't know where she was, despite standing within sight of the flat she called home for more than 60 years. She had the look of someone who had woken into a nightmare and found themselves in a strange land. And, I guess, that's where she was.
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Rose died in hospital two months later as many do when taken from the familiarity and independence of their own home. The death of this plucky widower who'd survived two world wars affected me and made me think about volunteering for the first time.
I had thought about it previously after the death of another neighbour whose body lay undiscovered for several weeks.
I'd let good intention fall by the wayside on that occasion but my eye subsequently caught a poster asking for volunteers as part of an elderly befriending project. I went to see the group who said what they really needed were volunteers who could visit older people in varying stages of dementia. I was surprised by how much I initially recoiled from the suggestion and how deep-rooted and prejudiced my opinion of mental health was without realising it.
Thankfully, I signed up. A year later that journey challenged a lot of my beliefs about care, compassion and mental illness and the simple fact that people want to be defined as people, not their condition.
The biggest surprise was Byron. This funny, engaging 74 year-old was not what I expected. He had already spent several years in a care home and was in the early stages of vascular dementia but remained largely lucid.
Byron's stubborn refusal to "sit and wait for the end" made him one of the home's real character's. I learnt a lot about spirit and dignity from this man who said he still looked in the mirror and was surprised to see his hair had turned grey.
He was a natural prankster and his constant jokes made me laugh including him bemoaning the fact that no-one got out of the care home unless "it was feet first in an ambulance." Thankfully, we proved that theory wrong when we made a break for the border. It was a text book escape Steve McQueen would have been proud of although we swapped the motorbike and Swiss border for a No.8 bus and local shopping parade.
I realised it doesn't take a lot to make a difference to someone's life and I enjoyed my weekly visits.
Questions are a powerful way of helping people with dementia reconnect with themselves and, during the course of my hour long visits, I could see how they re-opened a succession of doors in his mind.
What is more surprising is the effect volunteering had on me. It made me more patient and understanding. I have learnt - fellow men take note - the value of listening and realising action speaks louder. It doesn't have to be grand or noble or involve anything more than an hour or two a week. It's about helping others and, in an odd way, helping yourself too.