On our first full day in England, we learned a new meaning of "schemes." We often take schemes to be nefarious, as in "scheming people," but today we visited two schemes and the Friendship Club which was established by Gaynor Hammond in 1997. Gaynor is a nurse and a Baptist minister who has spent many years advocating for congregations to pay attention to the spiritual needs of people living with dementia. She's a woman of great passion and energy, and she clearly loves the elders she works with.
The Friendship Club operates much like a Memory Cafe, except that it meets every week. We arrived a few minutes after Gaynor and club participants had settled in with tea and biscuits, sitting around a square table in a room in a church conveniently located by the kitchen. Everyone there this morning been a carer for a husband with dementia, all of whom have now passed on. However, they did not want to stop meeting, for the friendships they have formed and nurtured through the years have become a vital part of their lives. They eagerly anticipate other persons with dementia (and carers) joining them, but in the meantime, they continue to gather. After going around the table with introductions, they had a lively conversation that began with reminiscence about pictures Gaynor brought from club gatherings through the years. They reminded us about the importance of having opportunities to get together with friends on a frequent, regular basis. They spoke openly about dementia's challenges but also the particular gifts of persons whose memory has faded. Gaynor ended our gathering with a beautiful prayer in which she spoke about Jesus telling us to "seek the lost." Sometimes the "lost" are people who live with dementia because they and their carers become socially isolated due to stigma and fear.
And what about the schemes? Our next stop was at the "Live at Home Scheme," a gathering of volunteers and older persons (some with dementia) who get together at another church on Tuesdays for a "big lunch" and on Thursdays for a more informal lunch that in no way should be considered "small." There are 6 "Live at Home Schemes" in Leeds, a "scheme" being like an "organization." Run mostly by volunteers (and a manager and assistant manager paid by Methodist Homes), the scheme is responsible for visiting older persons in their homes and operating social programs like the lunch we attended today. We chatted with several participants as we ate our lunch.
Our last experience of a scheme was Memory Lane run by the West Leeds "Neighbourhood Network Scheme" (one of many schemes supporting older people with dementia and their carers in West Leeds). It meets in the Strawberry Lane Community Centre in Armley (a suburb of Leeds). Persons with dementia (fairly well advanced in at least two) were present with their carers, mostly spouses but a niece in one case. They were finishing a lovely lunch of quiche when we arrived, so we went into "the reminiscence room" to meet with Dawn, the program director. She is bright, passionate, and is a fierce champion of the rights and needs of elders, including those who are victims of abuse. Her scheme is dedicated to making certain older persons do not fall through the many cracks in the complex systems of social service delivery.
Dawn understands the central role of personal relationship in serving elders, especially those with dementia. She has known one aphasic woman attending today's program for 16 years, and although the woman does not communicate in obvious ways, she has such trust in Dawn that she is at ease with the people around her, including strangers, when she knows Dawn is present.
Participants, those with dementia and those without alike, created paintings under the guidance of Mary, a volunteer. One could not tell during the process which was which, nor did the completed paintings make any distinction. Art is art, and creative engagement remains possible in all cognitive states. When the group grows too large, Dawn creates a new group - she believes that once a group becomes larger than 20 it is too easily dominated by a single, strong personality. It was quite evident how much the program means to all who participate, and how eagerly they look forward to future gatherings (including a special, extended "1940s Party" coming soon).