The Lifestyle Coordinator of Dad’s nursing home asked me if I was prepared to be responsible for running the Men’s Group on a regular basis (as a volunteer). This entailed providing activities for up to 8 men every Thursday afternoon. I jumped at the opportunity and thought to myself ” How hard can this be?”. I have been observing the care staff for over 6 months now and had picked up valuable tips along the way. One thing I learnt was that the more you know about your resident, the better care you can provide.
I asked for the case notes on each resident and studied their personal history. I researched their life stories including hobbies, sports, achievements, family history and experiences. I found this information really interesting as it often explains why certain behaviours occur. By knowing this information you can understand how the person thinks, and it can give you clues on how to reason with people when they become aggressive or agitated. It also explains why residents become upset, and feel guilty etc.
It was two days before my first official Men’s Group activity and I was in Dad’s room after showering/shaving him etc when he grabbed a tissue, bent down and started to clean my shoes. It actually engaged him for a minute or two, which is something we had not been able to find in recent times. This sparked a brainwave with me that I could conduct a ‘shoe shining’ session with the men on Thursday. The activity is tactile, they would know how to shine shoes as they had done it many times before, and they may have a sense of pride in completing a worthwhile task. My brain was buzzing with ideas and the more I thought about it, the more I believed I had the perfect male activity. The men will love it!
I frantically prepared over the next 2 days, filling my van with shoe stands, rags, foam shoe shine kits, old posters, tables, stools, and anything I could find related to shoe shining. I also constructed activity plans which document how I set up and perform each activity, and allows any person (paid carer or volunteer) to be able to follow the instructions. I formulated check lists to make for faster preparation of food and drink trolleys. I also created an activity report so I can document the results of each activity as it happens.
I felt the men needed a uniform to set us apart from the women and the aprons would also help us bond and make us feel like a team. The next day I went to K-Mart and purchased 8 black aprons. I was really excited and thought that I was about to ‘put on a show’ that will revolutionize the care industry and enrich the resident’s lives…or so I thought.
Thursday had arrived and it had a ‘Grand Final-like’ buzz for me. I was edgy, and pumped in readiness for my Men’s Group activity debut. I had a spring in my step as I loaded in all my props, tables etc into the dining room. Everything I did I had the resident’s well being ‘front of mind’. I prepared tables that were waist height so the men didn’t have to bend over, I kept the area tight so the men could sit closer to each other and hear one another better ( many are deaf). I used wax polishing kits to avoid mess, aprons for the same reason, and music to keep the mood happy. I brought in 20 shoes on a stand to be polished. I had a fully loaded food and drinks trolley with the best treats. I was ready to go.
My buddy Sam (paid carer) collected the men from their rooms and walked them to the dining room. I greeted each man and placed a brand new apron on each of them. Dad was the only person who kept taking his apron off. Eventually we had 4 men in the group (the others were either agitated or at appointments) and I had to entertain them for the next 90 minutes. I started by offering each man a drink and a biscuit, which made them all very happy.I grabbed the camera and took a few shots for the nursing home archives while I had everyone in position.It was at this point where things took a turn for the worse.
I handed one man a shoe and helped him apply his polish . He was frustrated because he couldn’t get the polish onto the back part of the shoe. His polishing sponge also was breaking apart and the shoe wax was like glue. A minute later he said ” I want to go to the bathroom”. Sam walked him back to his room while I helped a 94 year old resident called ‘Feisty Fred’. He was in one of his grumpy moods and he snapped at me with ” WHAT ARE WE BLOODY DOING THIS FOR? MY SHOES ARE FINE!” I tried to calm him by saying ” I have all these shoes to clean Fred, I really need your help to get them done”. He yelled back ” THAT’S YOUR PROBLEM, NOT MINE”.
I was starting to feel the pressure now because all the other carers were watching me and I really wanted this to work. Sam then returned from the toilet, but without his resident. Sam came up to me and whispered ” I need to tell you Brett, that the resident did not really want to go to the toilet, he made an excuse to get away from the activity”. I was disappointed but battled on, as I expected at least one resident may walk away. I then worked on ‘Feisty Fred’ by helping him polish his shoe. His polishing sponge also fell apart and the wax smeared across the shoe leaving a trail of sticky sponge bits. “What the hell is happening here?” I thought to myself. Now Dad and the other remaining resident had sticky messy shoes at the same time.
Ahhhhhh…….things started to unravel now. I had to grab a rag and try and get all the gluey sponge bits off everyone’s shoe. The residents were all complaining. Feisty Fred then yelled out ” THIS IS SHIT!… IT’S A BLOODY MESS”. I didn’t know who to help first. I went after ‘Fred first as he was making the most noise. As I wiped the shoe. He yelled out again ” LOOK AT THE BLOODY MESS ALL OVER MY BLANKET?” ( it was over his legs keeping him warm – even though it was 36 degrees). So I started to brush off the glue bits from his tartan rug. He then stood up, took off his apron and said “I am not doing this, I am going back to my room!”. I pleaded with him to stay, and even offered to bring in an old cash register from the van (my Plan B) so he can fix it for me. He wouldn’t have it, and left the group,
My confidence was shattered now as I had lost 2 residents in 2 minutes. I was reeling and now in damage control. I then looked across at Dad and he had grabbed his sticky polishing sponge and decided to rub it all over his face. Ahhhh….now I have two residents with spotty shoes and my Dad who thought he would take a shave with the polish! I grabbed another rag to clean him up, when the other resident, Ralph became agitated. Ralph has dementia, schizophrenia and is incapacitated in a walking frame, can’t speak and has limited mobility. I was thinking to myself “At least he won’t complain or take off”. I was wrong, he began to shake his frame and grunt at me. His body language was crystal clear , it said ” I wanna get outta here…Now!”. Sam noticed this also and decided that he better walk Ralph back to his room.
So there I am sitting with Dad amongst all this shoe shine setup, and I was now desperate. The other carers were starting to laugh as they observed from a distance. I then whispered to Dad ” I really need you here, can you just sit with me and polish this shoe?” He grabbed the shoe and threw it straight on the floor. What???? I then rolled my last dice. I said to Dad through gritted teeth ” Just sit with me and you can have extra chips and some Monte Carlo biscuits….I need you”. My plea fell on deaf ears, Dad stood up grabbed two Monte Carlo biscuits and went back to his room. Oh my god!…..I am now sitting here polishing my 2o shoes in an apron by myself and trying to bribe my Dad with biscuits. This was meant to be my showcase performance.
I was thinking to myself, “I have just lost my entire Men’s Group in 6 minutes, including my Dad. What am I going to do for the next 84 minutes?”. The feeling I had was one of complete devastation and now I had to do the ‘walk of shame’, as I slowly packed up all my gear and carried it back out to my van in front of the other carers. I was really feeling sorry for myself, my ego was bruised and I had just blown the budget on an activity that lasted 6 minutes that everyone hated. I walked back and forth to the store room with head bowed reviewing my performance in my head over and over. The scary part was I could not think what I would change to make things better. I was not able to fill out my report as I was so negative.
The Coordinator saw me and called me into her office for a de-brief. She asked “How did it go?” I told her the truth and said ” It was a disaster”. She tried to comfort me by saying ” With dementia you never know what is going to happen next, and you need to celebrate the small moments within a session”. I told her that I did not have any small moments to celebrate, and even my Dad left me! She was trying to counsel me, but then ended up bursting into laughter and was not able to stop. She apologised as she laughed, and said ” well things can only get better from here”. She continued to laugh and she was holding her stomach as it hurt from all the laughing.
I drove back to work depressed and mentally exhausted. I parked the van in the loading dock at Burnside Village and actually fell asleep at the wheel for 20 minutes. When I awoke I drove home and went over in my head what went wrong. My next challenge …..what the hell do I do next week?
The next morning I turned up to see Dad and ‘face the music’ with the other carers. I walked into Dad’s room ( who was just dozing on his bed) and something did not feel right. I looked around and peered into the open bathroom. I then got the shock of my life, sitting on Dad’s toilet was a large 84 yo female resident who was lost and had decided to stop in for a ‘tinkle’. I certainly thought my day could not be worse than the day before, maybe it will be?
This is dementia . . .