It can be hard to visit someone when it seems like they are slipping further away into their dementia, or losing their ability to communicate verbally. When it feels like you’re not making a difference and your visits aren’t remembered it’s understandable to begin to wonder if it’s even worth visiting at all. It is! Though people living with dementia may soon forget the details of your visit, they will be left with the emotional memory for far longer. The feeling of being loved, cared for, happy.
So how do we try and make our visits those which leave the person feeling loved, cared for and happy? How do we enable someone living with advanced dementia to enjoy the moment? Here are my top tips:
What were the interests and hobbies of the person? Did they like particular music, or art? What smells, tastes, sounds, touch and visual stimulation will bring enjoyment to them? Even people with very advanced dementia can experience enjoyment through the senses and it can create connections.
Sound - favourite music, singing, favourite TV/radio theme tunes. Poetry - old familiar poetry like The Owl and the Pussy Cat. The lady I visit loves Shakespeare’s sonnets. She can’t remember what she was doing half an hour ago but she can join in when I’m reading his sonnets to her. Perhaps it might be favourite verses from the Bible or the Lord's Prayer that brings them comfort and connection, or old hymns and sunday school songs.
Vision - photos of family, old holiday snaps, pictures of anything that the person with dementia would find stimulating. I visited a lady once who had very advanced dementia and it was impossible to hold a coherent conversation with her. But she mentioned to me that she liked a group of artist called the “Canadian Five”. With the help of google I printed off some paintings which I took the following week. We were able to have an amazing conversation as she talked about these pictures.
Smell - lavendar, rosemary, favourite perfumes or aftershaves. Take the person you are visiting for a walk in the care home garden - admire the sights and interact with the smells, especially if there are herbs growing in the garden.
Touch - the importance of caring touch can not be over estimated. You can learn to do a simple hand massage technique that can really bring connection between you are your loved one. Here’s a link.
There are so many other things to touch and feel. I once visited a lady who was bed bound with very advanced dementia and had visual impairment. I learned she used to be a seamstress and made beautiful wedding dresses, so I got some offcuts from our local bridal shop and she would spend ages touching and caressing them. (See photo) And how about bubble wrap? Who doesn’t enjoy a good pop of the bubbles?
Talking of bubbles - they can be a lot of fun - both blowing them and popping them. I spent time with a lady in a sensory session. She wasn’t interacting at all, just watching. She couldn’t even have a hand massage due to a condition of her hands. But when we started blowing bubbles and we put the bubble wand to her lips she blew and created her own bubbles. It was so special.
I’ve mentioned going outside but it’s worth repeating. Many people with dementia are living in a locked unit for the safety of residents. To be able to go outside can be so liberating - the fresh air, the flowers, the birds, the trees.
Art - painting, drawing and colouring. These are great in themselves and particularly good for people who have lost the ability to communicate verbally. I recently learned that the lady I visit used to draw horses so now each week I take in a sketch book and pencils for her to have a go.
A manicure - who doesn’t love a bit of pampering? A manicure isn’t just for ladies either - there are men who liked to be well groomed too. And combine it with a gentle hand massage for the ultimate enjoyment.
I have a bag now which I take to the care home every week. It has a basic manicure kit, a portable speaker, hand cream, a sketch book, photos, pictures and music on my phone. I can then offer different activities depending on the mood and fancy of the lady I visit. There are some weeks it doesn’t go that well, if she is having a particularly bad day, but more often than not it has enabled me to bring her a little enjoyment. Although I have been visiting for nearly two years I still have to introduce myself every week and I know she has no memory of my previous visit. And yet, I do sense that she knows me. At the very least she associates me with good feelings, and that for me, makes all worth while.
Our population is ageing, fast.
It's a hidden time bomb that no-one in the church is talking about.
In the last 60 years, the number of people aged over 65 has doubled, and the number of people over the age of 85 has tripled.
Kofi Annan, former president of the United Nations, described it as “a revolution that extends well beyond demographics, with major economic, social, cultural, psychological and spiritual implications”.
An Ageing Population
The proportion of older people in the UK is forecast to dramatically increase over the next two decades.
Those aged 85 and over, are the fastest growing age group in the UK. It’s predicted that 20% people currently in the UK will live to see their centenary (DWP, 2011).
Those over 85 are more likely to experience frailty, ill health and dependence, with 75% of over 85’s suffering from limiting long-standing illnesses.
Whilst the numbers of those in the third age (65-74) is predicted to stay relatively static over the next 12 years, those in the fourth age (75-84) is forecast to grow by 25%, and those aged over 85 by 50%.
Due to the drop in the numbers of young people attending, the church is ageing more acutely than society (Brierley, 2015).
That's a massive change.
In past generations, it has been the church that has led the way on social reform. Think of Cadbury and William Wilberforce who were well ahead of their time.
The church model we now live with was established decades ago. Our outreach programs are often designed for a population that comprised mainly of families with young children or teenagers.
With a changing population, our church models have failed to change and grow with them.
Many churches have youth and children’s workers, but few have anyone assigned to older people, let alone a strategy for mission and discipleship of their older community.
A cursory glance at church movements and websites, shows a glaring hole in any provision for those age 65 and over.
We believe that, as it has through history, the church should be taking the lead on the issue of a changing world around us. It should be the church who seeks to bridge the growing generational divide.
The ageism that is so prevalent in society can so easily spill over in to the church. Yet, the church should be leading the way in expressing the worth, dignity and value of the older generations to us as a society.
Jesus told His followers that the world would know us by the love that we have for one another.
The hallmark of the church should be diversity in unity. 'For there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.' (Gal 3:28)
There’s a saying that “The young people are the church of tomorrow”. The church needs to stop seeing older people as the church of yesterday and instead show the world that we are all the church of today.
It's time for the church to change the way we view and value older people, both in our churches and our communities.
The church has the chance to be a trailblazer, reaching out to and serving the growing population of older people.
We have the chance to develop and establish ministries and programmes for the retired and the elderly.
We stand on the brink of massive social change. The church has an incredible opportunity to shine the light of the gospel as role models of intergenerational connectedness, enriching the lives of young and old alike.
Will you be part of this revolution?
Where Can I Get Started?
When meeting someone new, it's easy to be worried about running out of things to say.
Talking to older people, especially those living with memory loss, comes with it's own challenges. Asking questions, which require a factual response, can be difficult for the person, if they can't remember.
For example, asking their age, how many children they have or what they had for dinner, might be questions they're unable to answer.
Often it's the recent memories that older people are unable to access, yet they can clearly recall things that happened decades before.
The good news is that there are plenty of questions that you can ask an older person that don't rely on their recent memories, but refer to some of their older memories.
Here's some ideas of open-ended questions that can help to break the ice:
This type of question allows an older person to share some of their memories with you, without relying on specific memories they may be unable to access right now.
Why not try using one or more of these open-ended questions next time you're chatting to someone?
This started as a somewhat crazy idea at midnight. Thinking about the different ways that I've spent time with my own elderly parents, I wondered if it'd be possible to come up with a list of 101 ideas for ways that we can spend time with older people.
Visiting older people, either in their own homes or in care homes, isn't rocket science. Yet we can feel intimidated. We don't visit because feel as if we don't know what to do.
It's one of my regrets that I didn't go and see my elderly godmother until it was too late. These regrets helped me prioritise creating many beautiful memories with my dad, who passed away last year.
This list is a work in progress - you'll notice that there's not 101 things on the list ... yet!
Please can you HELP us build this post by sharing your ideas and experiences. How do you prefer to spend time with elderly relatives?
Help us create an amazing and useful list:
Please COMMENT below with your ideas, links to posts or suggestions, which we can then add to the list.
If you prefer, share your idea with us on social media - links below.
One village church in Norfolk, is making a real impact on the elderly in their community.
In a village of just 1489 residents (according to the 2011 census), with 20-30 regularly attending their weekly church services, size (or lack of it) has not deterred the team at St Mary's, Newton Flotman, from making a difference.
Last year they set up a Care Home Friends project, with volunteers going in regularly to visit elderly care home residents.
Volunteers visit weekly, talk about childhood memories, the news or sometimes take individual residents outside for a walk in their wheelchair. Special boxes, full of objects connected to topics they enjoy, help volunteers initiate and engage in conversation.
Once a month, the church baby and toddler group, Church Mice, meets in the care home. Residents and children sit around, talk and do crafts together. Everyone enjoys singing nursery rhymes together.
A small group from the church visit regularly to lead a communion service, which is well-attended by residents. For those unable to join in, the team visit residents in their rooms and are able to share communion and pray with them.
A number of care home residents are picked up and taken to the monthly community lunch in the church room, where they get to meet other village residents, both old and young.
There are occasional outings for the residents, where one of the team drives the minibus, to take residents on a day out. A recent outing to the seaside town of Southwold was well received, with beautiful sunny weather being an unexpected bonus.
With loneliness impacting over 8 million people in the UK, the church is involving older people in their community and creating opportunities for friendships to grow and blossom.
This small local church really seems to believe and act on the quote, that "helping one person might not change the whole world, but it could change the world for one person."
Community outreach worker, Andy Cox, says "We've had highs, such as being shortlisted for an award for our work at the Caring UK Awards. I've also been involved in end of life care for some and been involved in funerals which, although sad, has been a privilege." Andy is hoping to recruit more volunteers from the local area to help reach more older people in their community.
Head of Care at the home, says "We’re so grateful to everyone who makes such a difference to the daily lives of our residents".
What's impressive about what they're doing, is that it's just a handful of volunteers running everything - from the baby and toddler group, to the Care Home Friends project, the monthly communions and the occasional outings.
St Mary's Church, Newton Flotman, really are showing that the saying, "small is beautiful" is true, at least, for one Norfolk village.
We're delighted to welcome John Noble as a new ambassador for Embracing Age, our parent charity.
John shared his story with us ...
Tell us a bit about yourself and your experience of supporting a loved one with dementia.
That’s a challenge without writing a book!
I’ve been in Christian ministry with my lovely wife for almost 60 years! We were married in 1958 and after seeing the folly of some involvement we had in the occult, we soon found the Holy Spirit at work in our lives as we were caught up with the Charismatic Renewal which emerged in the 1960s in a big way.
Alongside bringing our five wonderful children into the world, we planted churches, shared in great conferences like Spring Harvest and developed a team to serve the church here in the UK and around the World.
Having been trained at the Royal Academy, Christine had a passion to see the arts functioning freely in worship and the church’s mission. With her team she pioneered the use of movement, drama and art which, with a strong prophetic element, enriched our gatherings at every level.
Christine was greatly used in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and has seen many people delivered, healed and released into ministry. She also did much to gender self-esteem with women and encouraged them to pursue their God-given callings in work, home and church in whichever way the Lord was leading them.
Together we were a great team and spent many years serving the church from simple tribal village fellowships in Asia and Africa to the city churches of the West and beyond.
In 2011 Christine was diagnosed with an aggressive form of dementia and we were faced with the greatest challenge of our long and happy relationship. I was devastated and wanted everyone to know and pray for us, while Christine was inclined to be in a measure of denial. This immediately led to some tension and made it difficult to manage the inevitable adjustments the progression of the disease brought.
Nothing I had been through in life had prepared me for the situation we found ourselves in and so began a massive learning curve for me.
I must admit that I didn’t always handle things very well as the Christine I knew seemed to fade away and a different Christine emerged. It was a Christine who didn’t behave and react the way she had done in the past and left me coming to terms with a disturbing range of emotions from bewilderment and confusion to hurt, anger and sadness.
If it wasn’t for the support of a loving family, praying friends and a few people with experience who listened to my pain and took time to sympathise and gently give some words of counsel, I would not have survived.
Two days after my 80th birthday Christine was taken into care for a couple of weeks to sort out her medication which wasn’t working too well. It was the worst day of my life and I wept buckets.
During her short stay she was seen to be in an advanced stage of disease and the assessor said that she was amazed that we had managed to cope for so long. So, Christine stayed in the home which was both a relief and a further devastation.
Why are you motivated to see more volunteers in care homes?
I have visited Christine every day for the last 22 months and watched her deteriorate to the point where she is immobile and has all but lost her speech. By God’s grace this experience has softened my heart and changed my understanding of those who have to cope or live with the disease.
I see the incredible commitment of so many carers, the majority of whom are immigrants. They work long shifts and the pay is not great. Every day they face the challenges of residents, most of whom are confused and concerned or totally dependent on their input and a few can be quite aggressive.
Carers time is taken up with the simple chores of dealing with the basic needs of feeding, washing and watching. Whilst many go the extra mile and try to spend time interacting with residents it is impossible for them to give the attention which would help to make life a little more bearable, especially for those who have no family or friends to visit.
I began to think about the difference a few volunteers, who have received a little training, could make to the lives, not only of the residents, but to the staff as well. I have seen how easy it is to get alongside folk to give them some assurance and a little love which brings light into their darkness and peace in their confusion.
We have made some real friendships with the staff who appreciate us being around and they are interested when we take time to share something of our experiences and faith.
There is another area where I see we can make a difference if we are sensitive. During one of my first visits to see Christine I was distressed and upset. A lady who was visiting her mother took a moment to come over to me and offer kind words of comfort and encouragement. During my daily visits I have had dozens of opportunities to do the same for other visitors who might be facing an emotional challenge with their loved one.
In our daily lives we find it difficult to engage with people who are busily going about their daily routines. However, when a life is turned upside down by the circumstances which bring them to a care home, they are vulnerable and open to receive a little love and tenderness which a caring volunteer might be able to offer.
When I discovered Embracing Age and all that you are doing, I was delighted and thrilled to know that my growing concern to see an army of volunteers supporting care homes across the UK was already being addressed a professional way. Thanks for the amazing work you have started and more power to your elbow!
If you could give one piece of advice to the younger generation what would it be?
Over recent years in our society, community life is all but gone. The security and support communities provided has been dissipated. Family life has largely disappeared and people are more and more isolated.
One tragic result of this is an ever-widening generational gap which breeds suspicion, fear and even anger and aggression between the young and old.
My advice to the younger generation which is emerging in this climate is, please take time to consider the long-term effects of perpetuating this situation. One day you will be old and will need love and support.
With all the energy, hopes and aspirations you have, let us, together, find a way to buck the trend and reverse the divisions. Let us rediscover the incredible reservoir of wisdom and energy which reside in the two generations and see how this can be a force for positive change in this troubled world.
Thanks John for sharing your story so honestly. We look forward to working with you to supporting many more residents in care homes, with your support!
First, let me say that I am not an expert in choosing a care home for a loved one with dementia, as it is not something I have had to do myself.
However, what I do is train volunteers to spend time and provide meaningful companionship to care home residents. I volunteer in a care home myself visiting a lady with quite advanced dementia who has no other friends or relatives who visit. I also trained as a nurse many years ago and I worked as a staff nurse in a care home for a short time so I have experienced care homes from different perspectives.
It is difficult decision to choose to move a loved one into a care home, with so much emotion and potential anxiety attached to it. But, it’s not a bad decision, or a sign of failure.
Moving into a care home can be the best option, the right option, for your loved one. And there are some wonderful care homes - we get such a distorted picture painted by the media.
It’s not all bad, terrible, terrible! In fact it’s more good, good and really good! The media chooses to put a magnifying glass on the bad and terrible and that can give us a distorted perspective on the whole sector.
After doing some research into the role of volunteers in care homes and interviewing care home residents, this is what one said: “Well actually I think it’s good if volunteers come in and see what happens in care homes, because I think it’s a good thing if they carry out the message that, “Don’t worry if you have to go into one, it’s a good place to be….I’m glad I came.”
But the challenge remains to find the right care home for your loved ones if and when that becomes the best option for them. There are lots of resources online from Age UK and the Alzheimers Society giving advice and information about what to look for.
Here's 5 things that I think are important for you to consider, using the acronym SEEEE to make it easy for you to remember.
In my mind this is the most important indicator about how good the care home is. It tells you a lots. Is there a high turn over of staff? If there is then you need to ask yourself why? In a good care home the staff tend to stay.
Happy staff = happy care.
If the staff are stressed out, and really busy that may have knock on implications for the quality of care your loved one receives. If staff are unhappy they will leave, the manager will struggle to keep recruiting and there will be lots of agency staff. Temporary agency staff won’t know residents personally, and it makes it much more difficult to offer person centred care if you don’t know the person.
which brings me on to my second point - ETHOS. What is the ethos of the home? Do they follow the principles of person centred care - which focuses on the individual, who they are, their life story - rather than on the illness, or their physical care needs. Not just “You are someone I need to get up, dressed and fed this morning”.
Do they treat individuals with respect and dignity? Do they provide meaningful activities for residents to be involved in? Is there a sense of community?
Is the environment comfortable and homely? Smart, hotel like care homes can look impressive, but this is a place where your loved one is going to live; this is HOME. This was highlighted to me when I chatted to a resident, who lives in a small, family run care home.
This particular care home looks a bit dated, not like a newly refurbished plush and roomy care home I also visited with this resident on another occasion. I was slightly concerned she might get care home envy, so was very surprised when afterwards she said to me, “Oh, I didn’t like that care home at all!” And she went on to describe how she felt it was all too hotel like and not homely at all!
I am sure there will be others who would love the hotel like atmosphere and not like the very homely care home - it’s all about finding out what is right for each individual.
The important questions to ask are - are there things around to stimulate residents interests - pictures, objects on the tables, opportunities to get involved in household tasks like gardening, dusting, folding - if these are things that residents find meaningful. Also, is there access to the outdoors, even if residents rooms are not on the ground floor.
4. EASY TRANSPORT LINKS OR PARKING
If you are going to be visiting regularly you want to be able to get there easily - either in a car or on public transport and be able to park if you are driving.
5. END OF LIFE CARE
It might seem a bit strange to be thinking about this before your loved one even moves into a care home, but it’s so important, especially for people with dementia.
The care home is likely to be the last residence of your loved one and you want to feel confident that it is a place where they will have quality of life to the end of life. Now I have to disclose a vested interest here - end of life care for people with dementia is a particular passion of mine and it’s probably a whole other blog. But you want to ask questions about this.
What provision is made for residents when they can no longer participate in the programme of activities offered by the care home? Do they have a programme of sensory activities for people in the last stages of dementia? This is quite new and innovative - but if a care home do provide this you know they are forward thinking and really focused on good end of life care.
There is unlikely to be such thing as a perfect care home - and what is perfect for one person won’t be perfect for someone else, as every individual is different. But hopefully that gives you a taster of the sort of things to look out for and ask when you visit and chat with the managers.
Author - Tina English (Director - Embracing Age)
One local church on the outskirts of London has found a winning formula in providing a safe and welcoming place for older people to come along and meet up with other local residents.
Taking her experience of helping run a parent and toddler group Pippa, a local mum, turned her attention to serving older people in the local community. An outreach was set up to serve the elderly in their community and to help reduce the isolation and loneliness faced by many. Aptly named Connections, it aims to connect people to God and with each other.
Before their Tuesday meetings, a team of volunteers comes in to set up the church cafe style and to prepare for the over 100 guests that they have each week.
Guests are offered coffee and homemade cakes, with flowers on the tables, which can include optional craft activities, mini hand massages, gentle exercises, jigsaws, shared hobbies and special interest tables put together by local guests, which allows guests to chat whilst they are doing something.
Pippa Cramer, Pastoral Care and Seniors Co-ordinator at HTC says “It has been a privilege to see how Connections has grown – for many, who are lonely and isolated, it’s the highlight of their week, and it’s so wonderful to see Connections as a bridge into church – many of the new faces we have at church come from Connections.”
Connections offers a safe place to connect with others and build friendships in a safe environment. They also welcome carers, who can bring along the person that they are caring for, allowing them both the opportunity to get out of the house once a week.
For their regulars, who are often living with ill health, dementia or bereavement, the opportunity to connect once a week, to sit, listen and talk, is all they need.
Pippa emphasizes that they want their guests to “relax and feel at ease” and believes that the love and care shown by the team is infectious. “It’s the care and love received that impacts people”. It’s not just the guests who benefit, the volunteers who take part also love being part of the team.
The church aims to help guests to experience the love of God through the friendships they build at Connections. During the morning, there’s a light touch ‘’thought for the day’ shared by one of the leaders and there always volunteers for guests to talk to and pray with.
Pippa says that she believes it’s their “warm welcome, ability to listen, generosity and prayer” , and the caring team of volunteers, that have made Connections such a success.
The culture of love in the Connections community has spread outside of a Tuesday morning, with guests and volunteers phoning each other for a chat, guests hosting coffee mornings and helping each other with shopping.
One of the surprising things about the project, is that it sees a large number of men attending. Pippa says that she believes that it helps that some of the team are men who are particularly good at getting alongside the older gentlemen, but also many of the activities aim to appeal to men, particularly the special interest tables.
The project has seen such success that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has expressed a desire to see the Connections model of reaching the elderly replicated across other churches.
It’s inspiring to see a church meeting real needs of older people in their community, with genuine love and compassion. We hope to see many more Connections projects springing up across the country!
To find out more about Connections, contact Pippa Cramer, Pastoral Care & Senior’s Co-ordinator at Holy Trinity Claygate, at firstname.lastname@example.org
We're part of Christians Together Against Loneliness, a coalition of faith-based charities to tackle isolation amongst older people.
While it's long been the churches practice to share meals, community meals have been growing in popularity in recent years.
Eating together provides an opportunity for social interaction and building friendships. That's one of the reasons we're launching "Make A Meal Of It", to encourage local churches to run a community meal to reach older people in their community.
With a growing elderly population and 12% of people aged 65 and over saying that they "feel cut off from society", there's never been a better time for churches to find creative ways to reach out to older people, who are often underrepresented in local churches.
Grab the PDF for Make A Meal Of It to see if this might be a good fit for you and your church.
Our Care Home Friends project encourages churches to adopt a local care home and offer trained volunteers to spend time and build friendships with residents.
To work towards our vision of having every care home adopted by a local church, we need more people to hear about Care Home Friends. We’ve have had some good publicity in the past, including a great article in the Times newspaper last summer. Yet, there’s more to be done to get the word out about the project.
We know that there are individuals and churches out there who, once they hear about Care Home Friends and how it can improve the lives of individual care home residents, will love to jump on board and get a project going.
We’re keen to get the word out about how easy for a church it is to set up a project, whatever their size or denomination. To help achieve that and to reach a wider audience who haven’t already heard of our Care Home Friends project, we’ve been developing our social media presence.
Jen Carter, our National Co-ordinator, has been working behind the scenes to update the Care Home Friends website, including a ‘get involved’ page for individuals and churches who want to find out more about starting a project.
On a sunny day in April, Tina and Jen had some fun setting up the video equipment and filming footage for a couple of videos about the project. The first two-minute video explains a bit about how simple it is to set up a project in a local church. We plan to create more videos, as people seem love to learning by watching videos on their phone or other mobile device, so watch this space!
If you’d like to see what happening with Care Home Friends or to help us share to a wider audience, you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram.