This is an account of my experiences volunteering every Sunday for two hours (10am till 12pm) from February 2013 to March 2015 at my local residential home, *all surnames have been changed.I will always remember my first day as a volunteer at my local care home; standing mentally trembling as a timid fourteen year old in the foyer. I had no experience of speaking to anyone older than the age of 60, other than my own grandparents and even that was a challenging task for me. This barrier was soon broken when a sweet petite old lady called ‘Nancy’ approached me, telling me how lovely I was and proceeded to kiss my hand. I think that my initial problem was finding something to talk to the residents, but I quickly overcame this and I ended up gaining an extensive knowledge on local history, childhood, school and parenting in the early 20th century, the music greats of past era’s and memories of World War II. Some of my best times during the years that I was there were around Halloween, Christmas and Easter when the whole home was decorated; I loved to entertain the residents by singing and dancing around the dinner tables- I also played to them a few times on the piano. I began to learn that the only true things that separated us were the dates that we were born and unfortunately, their illnesses.
There were occasions in which I had to comfort patients in times of sadness. I would sometimes watch them break down in front of me over the deaths of family or friends. They would also sometimes feel worthless or depressed and express their wishes to die. Staying professional, I took on a more personal caring role. I became the listener whilst care staff were busy with their duties. I would try my very best to lighten their mood, reminding them of all the things to be happy about, reminding them that their loved one would not wish to see them unhappy and by making them laugh. I dealt with them as I would comfort, or want to be comforted, by my own friends.
In the home, tensions sometimes were high between residents. Some were due to their medical conditions, or the drugs that they were taking, and some were not. For example, I once witnessed one resident bullying another. My first instinct was to alert the carer. I then helped to politely ask them to move apart from each other whilst the carer told ‘the bully’ that this behaviour was not acceptable. Another example, in which dementia played a part, was a woman who refused to eat her cornflakes despite asking for them. The woman was very aggressive towards the carer, shouting and swearing. As another carer was present, I chose to not be involved but I watched how the carer, knowing her condition, continued to act professionally and make the woman a different bowl of cereal. The woman soon relaxed and I can imagine that an incident report was filed. In the future, I know that I would deal with any similar situations in the same manner. It also alerted me further to the difficulties faced when caring for patients with dementia.
Volunteering at the home created my first experiences of dealing with people with forms of dementia and observing people living with long term health conditions. I learnt that patience is a virtue when Mrs Hilda Smith* is telling you how her mother always used to tell her “treat people as you want to be treated”; despite this being a very useful phrase, it begins to loose meaning after the 10th time she has told you that story that day. I also learnt to never be alarmed as no action is too peculiar when dealing with dementia patients. One of the residents called 'Ken' repeated to use other residents cabinets as a toilet, despite having no recollection of it and never stopping even when the carers had told him several times. Through times of observing memory loss, mood swings and hallucinations- I began to realise the harsh realities of dementia and the effects on not just the individuals, but the family members and the carers. It was then when I began to take an interest in the disease, signing up for the Alzheimer’s Awareness magazine and raising money for the cause.
Dementia was not the only long term condition I witnessed whilst at the home. I also spent a long time with a resident called ‘Kath’ who had chosen to live apart from the other residents- she had recovered from bowel cancer, however; she was still living with some of the effects. She suffered from extreme pain almost every day, she struggled to go to the toilet and it was terribly painful for her to walk. I like to believe that I helped her a lot by visiting her room every week, making her bed, listening to her experiences, making her drinks and making sure that she got her dinner on time.
Whilst at the home, I also had to become more mature in order to deal with the deaths of the residents (something I had not previously experienced). The time that I was told that a resident had died, it upset me a lot. I can still remember shedding tears for them at home, but whilst volunteering I learnt to act professionally by not crying and being respectful and comforting to the residents affected by the death. Because I spent such a long time there, I began to get used to getting to know a resident and then seeing them deteriorate over a long period of time until one week I would arrive to be told that they are no longer with us. Despite these sad times, I feel these sad experiences have helped prepare me for life as a future medical student.
Throughout my volunteering I learnt a lot about what it would be like to work as a Health Care assistant (HCA). They have the responsibility of watching over a ‘unit’ of 6-8 residents, sometimes when no carers are present. Whilst I was there I was often left to fill in a small amount of paperwork, such as the dinner menu, which involves recording what each resident would like to eat. I had to be aware of various dietary needs, for example; diabetes and food allergies. This was nowhere near the amount of paperwork that the HCA’s had to fill in, detailing every patient’s state every half an hour and I now appreciate the paperwork load that health care professionals face every day. Some of my other duties included feeding some of the patients and assisting them when moving around the room, both of which required an incredible amount of patience and self-awareness, but I enjoyed the feeling of responsibility.
Dignity. The word plastered across posters around the home stating: ‘How have you maintained my dignity?’ This may be a simple question for some, but for me this was the first time when I began to realise the true meaning of the word and from there, I began to put a real emphasis on maintaining it. If a woman’s underwear was on show whilst she was being hoisted, I made sure that it was pulled down. I made sure that residents had the opportunity to wear clothes protectors whilst eating. Making sure, when I was mistakenly left with a resident on the toilet (I was asked to do so by a carer), that I kept the door closed and checked on their progress only discreetly with the door only slightly ajar. Checking dignity became one of my most important rituals for residents left in my care.
All the experiences that I gained, good and bad, developed my skills as not only a person, but it furthered my certainty that I want to be a doctor. I carry the skills that I have learnt with me and I have applied them to further placements...but that’s another story!