It all started 5 years ago, when as a member of a London Rotary Club, I had been asked to give a talk on my work (public speaking) to some residents of a care home at Friern Barnet – called Lady Sarah Cohen House. On arrival, notes at the ready, it became quickly evident that my audience wanted to talk to me about their experiences instead, so I abandoned my speech and listened to them! They were an amazing, inspiring group and I vowed to return. Three years later I started a discussion group called Let’s Talk which is still going strong, with different members. We meet, we talk and then we have a cuppa! Participants are aged between mid-seventies to mid-nineties with a total of 5 over 100. Groups vary in number between 5 and 20 and take place fortnightly in two care homes and weekly in one other group.
When we facilitate the Let’s Talk groups, we’re sensitive to everyone’s needs, encouraging people to participate yet respecting those who do not. We are trained and aware of group dynamics and ensure a safe and enjoyable space, upholding the dignity and value of each group member. We are fully aware of the need to be patient and allow time for some people to speak. Another vital part of our role is to look beyond physical disability or frailty to the person within, being aware of their inner strengths, wisdom, experience, knowledge and their ability to remain open to life and resilient in spite of difficulties and frustrations.
The first time I went I sat there and waited. Suddenly I heard screaming coming down the corridor and I was terrified that whoever it was, would be joining the group. This was so. Annie – who was in a wheelchair and had dementia – was being pushed by her devoted husband Ronnie, who wanted to come to our group and join in with the communication. Once in the group, he soothed her and I acknowledged her, the screaming subsided and she came every fortnight until she died, always looking beautiful and peaceful.
This group proved to be so successful that a few years later I started another one with a colleague, at Princess Alexandra care home in Stanmore. We take the groups alternate weeks with a coffee at the beginning of the group. My colleague brings in prepared material but both our styles complement each other and work well.
By running these groups, I have met a whole host of older Londoners, each with their own interests, stories and humour. Over the years we have had much fun and laughter as well as moments of sadness, which are shared together.
There was Pat and Alan – both 94 – both historical experts who often argued about the historical accuracy of some event going back centuries – and who would dare contradict them?! Meanwhile Sylvia grew tomatoes in a grow-bag in the garden of the care-home, her optimism remained undimmed by her failing health and loss of a leg. Ruth lived in the East End of London at the time of the Kray Brothers whom she thought were wonderful, as they paid her husband Alf a great wage and huge tips when he ferried them around as a cab driver in London (not on jobs I would hasten to add!)
I still think of Sadie who sat in the group for years. She hardly spoke, but listened to everyone, which was just as valuable a contribution to the sessions as those who told their stories. Doris, in a wheelchair, was dynamic and forthright. I got a real shock when going to the golf-club to which I belong, and seeing a group photo with her in the middle of it. She had been lady captain and was a keen golfer. Totally without rancour, her spirit was amazing. Finally Graham, who – whilst we were discussing young people finding themselves – commented ‘I never lost myself’ he commented – too right!
As you will gather, dear reader, I have great love, respect and admiration for all the people in our groups many of whom have great spirit which shines through. Which is why three years ago we started a third group in Elstree run by Sunrise Homes, an American group. We are now firmly established and run these sessions every fortnight. It is my hope that many more of these groups can be formed, as they have a hugely positive impact upon the well-being of the older Londoners who take part. We’re delighted with the feedback these sessions receive, especially when participants discuss the ways the groups reduce their feelings of isolation. If you would like to find out more about the Let’s Talk groups please contact me.