Never Stop Learning

Eighty percent of the older people living in one of the featured care homes go out to do activities on a daily basis, and children come into the care home from the local school to do intergenerational work.

I'm fortunate that during the course of my working week many different films relating to ageing, health, social care and dementia are sent my way. Having made my own film for the G8 Dementia Summit and more recently Care England, I appreciate the popularity of this method of communication for conveying messages and allowing audiences a glimpse into the personalities and lives of the people being filmed. Such films also often carry really important educational or awareness-raising messages.

Amongst the plethora of films in my burgeoning library a few stand out, and the one that's inspired this blog is particularly special. It came to me via my twitter account from 'Learning for the Fourth Age', an organisation I hadn't previously heard of - The joys of social media.

The film is 7:29 minutes long, and shows older people who are living in care homes learning new skills, or in the case of one lady, revisiting her abilities as a pianist after a stroke. A 93-year-old lady is filmed learning Welsh, while an 89-year-old lady is being taught to use the computer to send a letter (email) to her great grandson, who she admits will be very surprised as he wouldn't expect her to be able to do that. Another lady is using a Wii game to play tennis from her chair, cheered on by other residents, while a gentleman confesses that learning to play the clarinet is like having a job again.

The film also shows the work of an organisation called 'First Taste' with footage of a garden designer doing gardening work with older people who are living in a residential home, including using paints to decorate pots and filling those pots with plants. As one lady says, "It keeps your brain working," while another lady delights in getting her hands dirty and, "Feeling like a child again." The power of reminiscence in this type of activity is clearly very important.

Care workers also feature, explaining that the learning activities and chair-based exercises for their residents have improved sleeping patterns, reduced the use of medication, cut the use of incontinence products and improved links with the local community. Eighty percent of the older people living in one of the featured care homes go out to do activities on a daily basis, and children come into the care home from the local school to do intergenerational work.

There are benefits for the social care workforce and management too, with staff reporting that they have as much fun as the residents do, which in turn is contributing to keeping staff turnover low and reducing staff sickness absence. Clearly giving older people who need social care choice and control, rather than just sitting around watching TV, is a win-win for everyone involved, generating that rarest of things; a good news social care story.

It also shows something else that is seen as rare - older people learning. Education isn't the preserve of the young, and despite all of those 'back to school' adverts that are emblazoned across retailers windows in August, there is no need for a formal 'school' or indeed term times for any adult of any age to start learning a new skill, or taking up something that they previously loved and thought that they would never get a chance to do again.

What is needed, however, is creativity and a 'can do' attitude from younger people. We need to stop seeing ageing, and particularly ageing with health problems, as taking every element of pleasure, fun and purpose out of a person's day-to-day routine. Sadly most people view living in a care home as just existing, but as this film tells us these are older people, "Not waiting to die but excited about life."

In a picture taken from the film, 89-year-old Irene Branston is learning to use a computer.

Admittedly learning takes longer when you are older, and the patience and consistency of your tutor is vital to the learning experience, but people of any age can learn and achieve, no matter where they live and what health issues they may have. For an individual with multiple long-term conditions and complex needs, the level of learning and achievement may be so small that those around them might view it as a pointless exercise, but to that person it is priceless not pointless.

As we are told at the end of the film, "[It's] not just that they are here to be cared for, they are here and they are being cared for, but they have another persona that is bigger and above that - that of a learner."

A timely message that in my view every social care provider should embrace.