During the first year-or-so of my University degree, I worked part time locally as a residential care assistant for people with dementia.
Like many other people I worked with, I was on a zero-hour contract. Unlike many of the other people I worked with, I was a young man. Though those statements are not directly connected, they did add-up to give me a unique perspective of caring; and what it is to be cared for.
Though there are many stories I carry with me from working in the local dementia care home, there is one which stands out particularly. It shaped me as a person, and showed me far more about the mind and dementia than anything else.
As many university students, I have always worked in zero-hour, part-time and even full-time jobs while studying. During the first year of my degree (studying English Language and Communication), my main job was working a couple of days a week caring for people with dementia.
For those who do not know about dementia, I strongly advise to do some research about it. It is a terribly unfortunate condition; and rather common. According to the NHS website, 1 in 6 people over 80 will live with dementia; and by 2025 one million UK-residents will be living with the condition.
Simply, it impacts the brain; increasing memory loss, misunderstanding, movement, and general cognition. It can change a person's behaviour, social traits, and communicative abilities.
After a couple of months working in the residential centre, I had stabilised a regular shift pattern. Most weeks: Thursday evening, Saturday daytime and Sunday evening. By a country mile, Sunday's were the best day to work. Why? Sunday roast.
For many people with dementia, maintaining personal routines are difficult. Whether it be watching you favourite football team, remembering to drink your morning coffee, or having your favourite meal, barriers to memory challenge routines. For cared-for individuals and their families, there is an association between the person and the personal routine. 'Have you had your coffee today Roy? Did they have their roast last Sunday?'
Sunday's there was always a bit more of a buzz around the wards. Rather than hearing questions of what day it was, there was an understanding that it was Sunday because it was roast-day.
After a couple of Sunday's I had developed my own routine. I would get in at 10am or Midday (depending on whether I had planned to be going out the night before), I did my rounds, and prepare the dinning room for dinner.
A Day of Change
Some residents would be on-the-ball ready for dinner. Others would be less aware. After getting used to the routine, I was asked by my ward leader to 'help feed Roy'.
I had not worked there long, so was still unfamiliar with some of the residents; unfortunately as is the nature of residential homes, staffing hours are irregular, homes can be quite big. Other than their personal description and condition description at the end of the bed, I was unfamiliar with Roy.
Roy was elderly. He was quite deaf, completely blind, physically quite weak, and had been living with dementia for a while.
On our first meeting on that first Sunday I introduced myself to Roy, said who I was and said his dinner was ready. He reached out his palm and shook my hand, turned up his hearing aid, and asked for his dinner. I kindly obliged.
Roy didn't speak much. We would make pleasant hellos, but he was quiet. I would ask questions and make chat after the meal, but his responses were verbally and physically limited. I would ask about his week, his life, his family, but unfortunately he either wouldn't say much or would simply not remember. Other than occasionally asking for more food, he did not speak much at all.
A Day Embedded In My Mind
After about a month of the same routine, I was feeding him again on a Sunday. Once again, he was not responding much. Frankly, I had thought to myself a few times that other carers may have given up making conversation. Then after finishing his Sunday roast, completely out of the blue, Roy asked me a question. I remember it vividly.
He said, "James. I used to live in Whitechapel, and on my way to work I would always walk past The Gherkin building. Well, the name of that building is called St. Mary's Axe. I have always wanted to know why it was called that."
Sometimes, life can be very weird. I still cannot remember how or why I came across the Wikipedia page on St Mary's Axe. More to the point, of the thousands of pages I've clicked on and skim-read during my life, I have no idea how or why I remembered that one. Either way, I am incredible grateful.
I suppose Roy presumed that I would respond by saying, 'I'll find out and tell you next Sunday' or something alike. Instead I waited for a moment to have a think about whether I was right, and responded. "Sure Roy, I'll tell you Roy if you like".
"Well, there are a couple of reasons. The old building of St Mary's Axe used to be a medieval Parish, but it was knocked down hundreds of years ago. But the name of the street The Gherkin is on is called St Mary's Axe, and The Gherkin building is number 30 on the street. The street is named St Mary's Axe because the old church was dedicated to The Virgin Mary, and there was a pub opposite on the street called The Axe. Over time, the name St Mary's Axe stuck and that is why it is called it today."
I can't fully explain the joy on Roy's face as I told him that. He had changed completely. His smile filled the room, his eyes had opened wide and the wrinkles of his face seemed to smile with him. A small tear fell from his left eye as he questioned my answer, "wow, how do you know that?". I don't think I have heard an elderly man say 'wow' since. I can't remember what I said specifically. I explained that I wasn't too where I read it, but I read it in an encyclopedia.
Roy thanked me, shook my hand and settled back into his chair. He said, "I will take a nap now. Thanks James". I said goodbye, left him there with the radio on, and went on to do something else.
Sometimes life is very peculiar. I couldn't help but think whether he would have remembered asking me if I came back to him that following Sunday. In one instance, remembering a small fact summed up a condition in a remarkable way.
Dementia and age can really change some people, and unfortunately seeing the condition first-hand showed me how those changes are hard to recognise. As is life, when we meet people for the first time we don't get their back-story. Conditions like dementia which affect the memory do not just change who people are, they hide who they were.
This moment did not show me who Roy might have been. This moment, for a brief moment, it showed me who Roy was.
I did not see Roy much after that. A few weeks later I was swapped with someone else and cared in another area of the residential home on Sunday's. Unfortunately some months later in the new year Roy had a bout of illness and passed away.
There are some things in life which tend to stay with you, and oddly it can be the shortest moments in time which can leave the biggest impression. This moment changed me as a person, and I am incredibly grateful that I was able to remember what I read about St Mary's Axe. I don't know if my memory allowed him to remember something. But I know I won't forget it.
I really advise you to do some research about dementia and similar conditions; how they can change people, and how despite the condition people affected can survive to live their lives as they would like.
We all change in different ways, but we all can change together.
For privacy, I have changed names and disclosed some information. The point of this blog post was not to isolate individuals and dementia, it was just to share story of the condition.