‘Imagine a world where a care home is at the heart of a community in the same way as a school or shop – a place where people enjoy visiting rather than dread that they might end up there.’
This was the vision of a national action research project I managed twenty years ago with NAPA, the National Activity Providers Association in the UK, which focused on exploring both the barriers and the possibilities for community engagement in care homes.
Key to this vision is reshaping the reputation and image of care homes. I have always said that we need someone to do for care homes, what J.K. Rowling did for boarding school – the ‘Hogwarts’ factor suddenly made them exciting and magical places with great food and interesting teachers! Sadly, not many people choose to go into a care home or consider them fun places? From my experience, care homes are often located either in remote rural places or in rather dull suburbs of towns. But there are some great care homes and day services which are right in the centre of a town or a village, where it feels much easier for people living and working in the homes to reach out to the wider community.
When working with Activity or Recreation Teams, I always encourage them to take a walk round the neighbourhood to see what is ‘on the doorstep’ for a possible visit or to invite individuals or organisations into the home. Is there a Garden Centre or football or hockey field? Where is the nearest school and what churches, synagogues or temples are in the area? Are there any pubs, bars, coffee shops or restaurants nearby? What about a farm or allotments/community garden? All of these places offer possible opportunities for an afternoon out or individuals working in them to come and visit.
One of the care homes where I used to work was very close to a local fire station. When I approached them about possibly visiting us in the home, there was much excitement when lots of handsome men and women entered the building in uniform! The manager was a little surprised as she said they had already completed their fire safety training, but I said that the firefighters were just coming in for a community visit. Just their presence generated lots of conversations and interactions! In another care home in Toronto, local retired police officers visited one of the men living in the Butterfly household who had also been a police officer. Where community connections like this can be made which relate to an individual’s interest or past life, this is even more meaningful. This man came to life when his two colleagues reminisced about the work they did.
When looking for volunteers from the community (and doing any advertising), it is important to be quite specific about what you are looking for e.g. “Are you a dog lover and keen gardener who would enjoy visiting an 85-year-old woman who is missing her garden and dogs now she has moved into a care home?” is much more likely to get a positive response than “Volunteer needed to visit elderly person in care home.” I remember contacting a specialist radio station called Jazz FM about finding people to visit a very isolated older Jamaican man who had had a stroke and who previously worked at the famous Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho in central London. Three Jazz lovers responded and visited him regularly to listen to music together and one of them managed to organise a trip back to Ronnie Scott’s for a night, where he was greeted like a V.I.P!
One of the great positives of Butterfly homes is they often have very vibrant and colourful environments and this can make it much more likely that young children will regard them as a ‘destination’ rather than a duty visit. We need to do all we can to bring more of the ‘Hogwarts’ factor into care settings so that community contacts can be more easily fostered and maintained.