Category Archives: Older people

Life stories: freeing the minds of dementia sufferers

It was only a picture of a gurgling baby. But to one elderly woman with dementia, it meant the world. “She had dementia, was in a care home and was past the stage where she could really have a conversation,” says Helen Bate. “But she just fell in love with that photo. She would try and wipe the baby’s dribble off, or feed it chocolate. It’s just an image – but it had the power to really engage her and she’s been able to talk to it.”

Bate is founder and managing director of Pictures to Share, an innovative social enterprise creating picture books and other resources for people with dementia. She’s a passionate advocate of people with dementia, who she argues shouldn’t be shut off from the world of books and art just because of their condition. “People make too many assumptions about people with dementia,” she says. “There’s often a lack of imagination in their care. If someone liked looking at good painting, they are not going to lose that when they are in a care home. They may not be able to read any more but they can still enjoy looking at the pictures in our books.”

Bate was inspired to start the business after her own mother, a dementia sufferer, enjoyed looking at a scrapbook Bate’s daughter had put together. “There was nothing else out there,” she says. her first three books were published in 2006 and, thanks in part to charitable sponsorship, she has now produced a total of 11, all designed to combat the isolation and depression which can so often be associated with dementia. The organisation has diversified into producing artwork and is now working on dvds.

“If you go into some care homes, it’s almost as if they assume that because people are old and have dementia, all they want to look at on the walls is pictures of the royal family, wartime or old street scenes. It’s pigeonholing everyone into a very narrow category.” The Pictures to Share books cover everything from sport to shopping and from the world of work to travel.

There’s diversity too in the choice of images: colour and black and white photos both old and new are mixed with reproductions of paintings. The key criterion is that all of the images should be powerful and easy to understand to prompt memories, a chat or simply a smile. “Because of their dementia, certain things won’t work if they are too complex,” says Bate. “And we have to be careful about showing pictures people might get worried about. For example, with a picture of children paddling in the sea where you can’t see any adults around, people could get quite distressed because they think the children are in danger.”

I tried out three of the books with my mother, who has multiple dementia. I was unsure how she would react, but I was delighted to find that the pictures inside captured her imagination. She used to be a great traveller, so it was perhaps inevitable that the biggest hit was the travel book. Its shots of the Taj Mahal and train, plane and ship journeys, really got my mum chatting.

The feedback from other users suggests my mum’s response is not unusual. “It opens the channels of communication that are a bit stuck,” she says. “Relatives find them really useful to get a conversation going, which can be tricky for people with dementia.”

For relatives and carers perhaps the most powerful thing about the books is that they remind us all that behind every person with dementia is an individual with their own interests, likes and dislikes and their own life story. They are not all the same, so let’s free our imagination – and theirs – as we care for them.

No voice for the vulnerable

Can you imagine being so desperate for affordable legal advice that you go on an eight-hour, 300-mile bus trip just to get help? I came across such a case seven years ago; a Welsh man facing eviction from his council-owned cottage when the area was being redeveloped found that the only housing legal aid lawyer willing to take on his case was in West London. So desperate was the man to stay in the cottage he had been born in and so great was his fear of homelessness, he made the trip.

Although this tale is from 2004, it highlights the vital safety net legal aid (when the state pays all or part of the legal costs for those who cannot afford them) provides to society’s most vulnerable. The number of solicitors who carry out legal aid work have been falling in recent years (hence the Welsh man’s 300-mile journey) thanks to uncompetitive pay rates, hours of unpaid work and red tape. But now, under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by £350m, the situation could get worse for those wanting to access affordable legal help. It is estimated that around 500,000 people could lose out on legal advice amid the planned cuts as the government wants to remove clinical negligence, family law, education, non-asylum immigration and housing cases from legal aid’s scope.

Today is Justice for All day, with marches and petitions planned by a coalition of 3,000 charities campaigning against the cuts and you can also oppose the cuts at social action campaign site 38 Degrees.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, has also launched Sound Off For Justice, a campaign for alternative reforms that it says will save more than the government’s own proposals and protect legal aid funding. The campaign encourages the public to demand the government reconsider its plans and look at the alternative measures which it says would save £384m in the next 12 months. You can record a voicemail for Justice Secretary Ken Clarke against the cuts here. The campaign is supported by, amongst others, housing charity Shelter, the Refugee Council, lone parent charity Gingerbread and housing association Eaves.

Here’s the campaign’s latest video:

There’s something rotten going on when an endless glut of super-injunctions protect the privacy, reputations and careers of the super-rich but a lone parent, for example, is denied basic access to his children because he simply can’t get the afford the advice.

Silver Surfers’ Day

It’s Silver Surfers’ Day and even if you don’t like the name of the annual event (for something so future-focused, it sounds dated), who can argue with its aim of promoting digital technology among older people?

Take 79-year-old David Le Clair, for example, who’s learning new computer skills which he hopes will help him to write a book about his life. David is a resident of James Hill House, an extra-care scheme run by housing association Octavia Housing in west London, and has just joined his social landlord’s free IT training project for older people.

David Le Clair in the digital techology room of his extra-care housing scheme

According to Digital Unite, the provider of digital skills in the community behind today’s annual event, around nine million people, many of whom are aged over 50, “continue to be excluded from large parts of daily life because they have no access to a computer and are not online”. Silver Surfers’ Day is the culmination of a week of events to encourage computer skills in the community, aiming to introduce older people to technology at a local level through libraries, community centres, schools and sheltered housing schemes, with taster sessions, for example. This year’s Silver Surfers’ Day coincides with Digital Day, part of Adult Learners Week.

At James Hill House, the digital course David is on is being taught using extra large screens and keyboards and shows older people how to use the internet, webcams and how to create Word documents. Funding from the government’s former Get Digital programme means residents now have their own camcorder, colour printer, TV and Wii games console too. The digital room is always open but residents can also use a laptop if they want to use the technology in their own flats.

The aim, says Octavia Housing, is to enable older people not only to use these technologies to connect with their family and friends, but to pursue their own projects of interest. For David, a former policeman, it is a chance to use the internet to reconnect with his past including his time in Nigeria where he lived for over 50 years. He’s hoping this will help him write his life story.

Vlado Veljanoski, James Hill House scheme manager, says the benefits go beyond simply sending emails or looking up things online: “Our residents now help to put together quiz nights and have developed interests in creating their own websites; two of them would like to showcase their paintings on the internet, others have interests in flowers and plants.”

Veljanoski and the James Hill House residents know that getting online brings more than simply social benefits but new research published yesterday suggests that the practical advantages are not exploited by older people. Research by the Payments Council, the body that sets the UK’s payments strategy, showed that, despite increasing numbers of over-55s getting online, not many take advantage of online or telephone banking. In a survey of 4,500 adults across the UK earlier this month, says the Payments Council, only 32% of over 55s use either telephone or internet banking, and only 24% of over 65s, compared with 60% of 16-24 year olds, 71% of 25-34 year olds, 69% of 35-44 year olds and 57% of 45-54 year olds.

While technology allows isolated or vulnerable people to access online social networks – to complement face to face interaction, not replace it – digitial inclusion is equally important for an ageing popultion from a more practical perspective, encouraging new, time-saving ways to manage daily chores, accessing public services or locating information online. Given that public sector and gassroots organisations are key to spreading the digital message in communities, how long before the digital drive is adversely affected by the spending cuts impacting on other local services and campaigns?

Whether silver surfers are just dipping a toe into the digital waters like David in west London, or are on the same tech-savvy wavelength as their younger counterparts (sorry – the title of today’s campaign makes obvious puns irresistable), the reasons to get online are brilliantly put by an older IT-fan from a previous blogpost, “When you get to your 90s you feel you want to keep up with things.. it makes you feel you’re up with the world.”

The cuts: the worst is yet to come

An authoritative analysis in today’s Society Guardian of the deepest spending cuts in a generation, which start from Friday. The special issue inludes some sector by sector breakdowns of savings and job losses, including pieces I contributed to the in-depth coverage.

The cuts – an alternative

For those who’ve not already seen it, this powerful film presents an alternative to the government’s devastating cuts agenda. It features community groups and anti-cuts campaigners along with Bill Nighy, Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien and Zac Goldsmith MP. Worth watching ahead of this weekend’s demo in London against the cuts.

It Cuts Both Ways…The Alternatives from Oonagh Cousins on Vimeo.

“Each day you spend leaves you with one less, spend them wisely”

By Jewish Care co-authors Sinead Rippington...
..and Nana Wereko-Brobby
“Each day you spend leaves you with one less, spend them wisely.”
Solle Frankel, aged 100

It’s sound advice from Solle yet, as young people, we rarely take the time to stop and listen to the older generation. A survey undertaken late last year by the charity Jewish Care revealed that only a third of Londoners thought that people over the age of 70 were important to society. The charity, which provides health and social care services to hundreds of older people every week, responded in November 2010 with its bold awareness campaign Pearls of Wisdom. The campaign asks the vital question: what can we learn from our elders?

The charity asked fourteen clients to share some valuable bits of advice, drawn from their long and varied lives. The effect was a powerful, unique and at times funny collection of life lessons, ranging from warming affirmations about love – “Get a goodnight kiss, every night” Jerry Cooper, 87 – to astute observations about money – “Don’t buy the things that you can’t afford.. pay your debts”, Jean Nadler, 90.

The fact that older people can be witty, insightful and interesting should go without saying. Yet statistics show that only around half of those aged under 35 have spent quality time with anybody over the age of 70 in the last six months indicating a real reluctance to connect with a social group considered “past it”.

So what’s the thinking behind this? It’s not exactly that we don’t care, but so many of us unthinkingly buy into an established social stereotype: older people are grey, boring and a burden on society. Thankfully, several attempts have made recently to dispel this image. The BBC’s latest hit, When Teenage Meets Old Age, and the recently launched Campaign to End Loneliness, follow a similar track to Pearls. The Campaign to End Loneliness, a collaboration between four different organisations- WRVS, Age UK Oxfordshire, Independent Age and Counsel and Care- wants the ‘Big Society’ to volunteer it’s time to do more for older people. The campaign, which began last month, has highlighted the seriousness of a reality where an average of 10% of our senior citizens feel either “severely lonely” or “always lonely”. Visitors to the campaign’s website are invited to offer their time to an older person or share their tips on how to combat loneliness. It’s not clear yet what the impact has been but the campaign’s report into the UK’s “epidemic of loneliness” is a much needed call to action.

Add to this the success of the website We Are What We Do, an example of original, digital action. We Are What We Do, a not-for-profit company founded by community worker David Robinson, were horrified to discover that two-thirds of Britons now believe that young and older people live in separate worlds. In response, the organisation asked younger people to pledge to make the world a brighter place by undertaking a number of small activities with their seniors. From learning older people’s tried and tested recipes to teaching your granny how to text, the website aims to highlight the myriad ways you can bond across the generations. As a result, nearly 10,000 people have signed up online and the community continues to grow.

At a time when Britain’s population is ageing rapidly and the media seems intent on playing up inter-generational conflict (the supposed battle between the beleagured baby boomers and the spoilt students, as the newspapers like to put it, these new campaigns offer a fresh perspective. It’s also a message that young people are receptive to. As Eitan Amias, a 17-year-old volunteer at one of Jewish Care’s Reubens House residential home in Finchley explains, intergenerational interaction benefits everyone involved: “when visiting the home I feel that I’m not just helping the residents but also myself, as I tend to take that positive energy with me to last the rest of the week”

But for many young people volunteering to spend time with the older generation can offer more than just a glowing feeling of pride. It’s also a valuable way to learn new skills, an increasingly important concern as youth unemployment reaches crisis point.

Indeed, volunteering can be crucial in securing that elusive first job after graduation, as Jamie Field, Jewish Care’s youth and community development officer, discovered. Jamie started working for Jewish Care as a volunteer, aged 15, but the experience he gained through charity work helped him land his current, paid role at the organisation after university.

However, Jamie believes “it’s important to make volunteering cool. It has to be relevant… you could write a newsletter, make a movie or use your skills to help someone use a computer’; young people need to be challenged and inspired and charities can’t be complacent, even in the midst of a recession when young people have more time on their hands to help. Jamie emphasises that young volunteers can use their charity experience not just to get jobs, but also to assist them with their Duke of Edinburgh Awards or to provide additional material for their UCAS forms. So, perhaps it really is time to take Solle’s advice and start spending our time a little more wisely.

Digital switchover boss pledges help to the hardest to reach

Peter White must be the only chartered accountant in the country with a corporate slogan that could belong to a social exclusion charity – “Nobody left behind” – a clutch of charity partnerships under his belt and a network of neighbourhood activists whose grassroots knowledge helps him do his job. Read my Society Guardian interview here with Peter White, the head of the BBC’s digital switchover scheme who is trying to ensure nobody is left with a blank TV screen.

Putting an ‘oh’ into OAP

Given the scrap heap syndrome surrounding ageing women, how refreshing to nod to the centenary of International Women’s Day with a photographic project that shatters the stereotypes of older women. In fact, some of the glorious images I’ve been looking at (below), not only shatter the stereotype, but pick up the splinters and waggle them defiantly into the faces of those with age prejudice.

Hermi, 85, above and below: “I don’t really feel like an older woman, even when I’m hobbling about because my knee has got arthritis in it.”

A series of exhibitions entitled Look at me! Images of Women and Ageing opens in Sheffield today, part of a joint project by the universities of Sheffield and Derby, cultural development agency Eventus and photographer Rosy Martin.

The project asked how older women feel about their public representation and the series of exhibitions in Sheffield feature images by local women. The women took part in workshops to create new and alternative images using photography, art therapy and video techniques. The workshops revealed not only how women feel silenced later in life, but how common it is for older women to feel pressure to deny ageing and or feel their sexuality marginalised.

Take one participant, 57-year-old Shirley (is 57 really that old, by the way?) who, when asked to pick an object to represent herself, chose a red high heeled shoe. She recently bought a red sports car to match her shoes: “The car and the shoes are things that aren’t safe, aren’t comfortable but are still part of me because there’s still that bit of me that has a bit of fire and sparkle… Yes, there’s the part of me that’s ageing, there’s a part of me that’s falling to bits but there’s this other bit and this car represents that.”

Shirley, 57, above: “There’s still that bit of me that has a bit of fire and sparkle”.

Shirley, who had a career in business management, wanted to participate because she was aware that she was entering a transition period and feared that these life changes signalled “the beginning of the end.”

Another participant, Hermi, 85, says: “I know I’m 85 so I know I am classed as an old woman. But I don’t really feel like an older woman, even when I’m hobbling about because my knee has got arthritis in it.”

If age brings widsom, then Hermi proves this by sharing a firecracker of a life lesson; the advantage of being an older woman is the freedom which accompanies age. Somehow, though, her own words pack a characteristically better punch: “If I want to wear a sleeveless top, I shall wear a sleeveless top and if my bra bothers me, I shall bloody take it off. That’s it. I mean there’s got to be a silver lining in everything, the silver lining in old age is that you can do what you like and nobody can tell you any different.”

To find out more about the ‘Look at Me! Images of Women and Ageing’ project and the free exhibitions, visit the website

Growing old gracefully; shelter with style

London's 'best place to live' according to town planners
With bursts of retro orange shooting through its autumnal colour palette and wooden floors framed by bright white walls, the purpose-built accommodation pictured here wouldn’t look out of place in some interiors magazines.

Beneath the well-appointed rooms lies a bistro and a health spa where you can get your hair cut and styled or enjoy a pedicure.

The building, which opened in November, has achieved code level four for sustainable homes. It is heavily insulated, rainwater is harvested for reuse and heating is sourced from photovoltaic and solar thermal technology. A combined heat and power source also produces electricity, with any surplus sold to the national grid. The entire complex is wired for super-fast broadband.

Little wonder Ewart House has just won a ‘best place to live in London’ award in the Royal Town Planning Insitute’s annual London Planning Awards.

Ewart House's hair salon

A boutique hotel or maybe the latest urban eco-housing?

The only giveaway that Ewart House might in fact be sheltered housing is the fact the ground floor ‘spa’ also offers assisted bathing and the pedicure is really, well, more chiropody. Look more closely and you see the handrails lining the walls and the discrete pacing area for vulnerable residents. The decor and furnishings are also colour coordinated to enable residents with limited vision and dementia to recognise which part of the building they are in; no institutional signage here but subtle ways for residents to get their bearings. In a separate wing with its own entrance are seven flats let to younger people with disabilities and the building is intended to act as a community hub.

Ewart House appears to have substance as well as style; this isn’t just fashionable living for the frail. The extra care sheltered home for frail older people, including people with mild dementia, contains self-contained flats for 47 residents. Almost all flats have a private balcony and some are designed for couples whose fragile health prevents them from sharing a bedroom.The weekly rent and service charges are £135.

The ground floor bistro, Ewart House

The project is a partnership between housing association Harrow Churches (HCHA), which manages the building and provides day time support, and the charity Creative Support, which provides specialist support staff on call 24-hours a day.

With a recent report by the Alzheimers Society suggesting that 50,000 people in the UK are being forced into care homes prematurely, Ewart House has three flats designed for people with mild dementia and the staff are trained in dementia care.

The three-storey building, designed by architects JCMT and styled by interior decorators Stanbridge Interiors, was built using a £6.3m loan from the Homes and Communities Agency, a £3m loan secured by HCHA from Santander and money raised by leasing part of the land to development partner Octavia Housing. Harrow Council pays for employing two teams of staff providing personal care and support while housing support staff are employed by HCHA.

Despite the obvious benefits and official plaudits, HCHA warns the funding climate is a massive threat to creating similar schemes. Chief execuitve Chris Holley says: ‘We’re extremely worried that funding will not be available for more schemes like this despite the substantial social and financial advantages it offers over alternatives like residential and nursing care.

According to one elderly resident, William Fordham, Ewart House is a breath of fresh air: ‘The best thing is the freedom. It’s magic – I have my own flat but carers coming in and out. I didn’t know places like this existed.’ As William’s words suggest, why should losing your youth mean losing your desire for decent décor?

* Images by photographer Lucy Baker

All in a good cause? Charity cold callers target the vulnerable

Freelance journalist & editor Kate Murray
My mum has multiple dementia. Sadly, there’s nothing unusual about that. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that there are now 750,000 people with some form of dementia in the UK.

For my mum, it’s a gradual decline into the night. She has her bad days – when she’s convinced she’s about to leave school and needs to find a job – and her better days, where she can just about remember her grandchildren’s names. But she certainly no longer has days where anyone who talks to her, even for a minute or two, might think she’s capable of making a serious decision about the money she spends.

That’s why I was so shocked, when going through her mail recently, to find a letter from one of the UK’s best-known charities, Save the Children, thanking her for talking to one of its fundraisers about leaving a legacy. ‘As requested,’ it read, ‘I have also enclosed a codicil form.’

When I spoke to the charity and told them how disappointed I was that they were targeting a vulnerable elderly person, I discovered that my mother was on a list it had bought a couple of years ago. She’d been contacted, the charity admitted, ‘several times’ over the last few months by fundraisers working on their behalf about making a donation or setting up a direct debit. Save the Children, to its credit, reacted swiftly. It apologised and immediately took my mother off its list, conceding that its telemarketers ‘should have identified she was not capable of making these decisions’.

This was not the first time my mum has been on the receiving end of charity cold calls and has, according to the fundraisers involved, expressed interest in making a regular donation. I have power of attorney over her affairs, so I, on her behalf, continue to donate to those charities she had herself identified before her condition deteriorated and she’s never ended up spending money she can’t afford on new donations.

When I started to have a dig, I soon soon found my mum’s experience was not unique. Take a look at the Alzheimers Society chat forum, for example, and you’ll see pages of discussion about dementia sufferers being cold-called, with, in one case, a fundraiser for a reputable charity apparently going round door to door in a sheltered housing scheme and even filling in the direct debit form when the potential donor was unable to do so.

Charities use cold calling, whether it’s on the phone or at the door, because it’s effective. According to the Fundraising Standards Board, the independent self-regulatory body for UK fundraising, its members made more than 4.7 million fundraising phone calls in 2009, and more than 22 million door to door calls (including collections) – both significantly up on the previous year. But the number of complaints is up too. And with charities facing a squeeze on donations in these tough economic times, it’s not unreasonable to fear that the pressure on fundraisers to get results will increase.

The Charity Commission, in its guidelines on fundraising, says ‘charities should not use any methods of fundraising that may damage public trust and confidence in charities’ including ‘targeting and pressuring vulnerable donors who may not be able to afford or understand the terms of the donation or ongoing donations they are committed to’. And in its code of practice on legacies the Fundraising Standards Board says charities ‘ought to pay particular attention when communicating with vulnerable people’.

Charities may do the right thing when they’re challenged. But is the message getting through to the fundraising frontline? Professional fundraising companies which work on charities’ behalf say all the right things about ‘high quality’, ‘sensitive’ and ‘no pressure’ telephone fundraising. And the Direct Marketing Association’s code of practice specifically highlights the need to ‘take particular care with vulnerable customers’. But marketers are highly focused on results – donors signed up and cash raised – and as I’ve seen that means the reality can fall way short of the theory. It seems to me that the confusing array of organisations and codes – yet another self-regulatory body, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, oversees face-to-face fundraising – may be part of the problem. Shouldn’t the Charity Commission, which doesn’t directly regulate fundraising, have a more hands-on role?

Of course charities need to reach out to new donors and of course they need to use cost-effective means of doing so. But sensitivity, a strong ethical approach and good training are all essential. So too is a tough line on those marketing teams who don’t stick to the high standards charities subscribe to. Otherwise I’m not convinced a fundraiser, working for a telemarketing or door-to-door team, will really give the thought they should to the donor.

Charities are under pressure for cash. But they rely on goodwill and can’t afford to squander it with shoddy sales techniques.