84 year old, Joan is a resident living at one of Rand Aid’s retirement villages in Johannesburg. Her husband passed away in 2006, the same year that she retired at the age of 72, from a very satisfying teaching career spanning 40 years, which included a long tenure at St John’s College teaching first grade. While Joan was still teaching, she very seldom attended or got involved with any of the activities and events which took place at her retirement complex. Her husband, her work and her family seemed to satisfy most of her needs, but after losing her husband and retiring from her life-long work, she began to feel quite lonely, isolated and lacking a sense of purpose. She had not managed to make many friends in the village, and the days just started to drift by, with not much contact, communication or connection to other people. Although Joan has always enjoyed exercising and goes for a walk around her complex every day, it is a solitary activity with no real social contact.
Last year, in 2018, Joan was diagnosed as being in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease and requiring mid-care. Her two daughters enquired about bringing Joan to the Ron Smith Care Centre Day Care programme, and began bringing her to the OT Activity Centre on Fridays for Baking. After coming a few times, it was discovered that Joan preferred to help with the preparations, setting up, and washing dishes, over doing the actual baking! She also adored chatting to the residents and making them smile. Her participation has now expanded to Wednesdays, where she has linked up with the volunteers who run the Movement and Music activity, and where she can practice her love of dancing.
Recently, I was in conversation with her daughter, Susan. She told me that her mother loves coming to the Activity Centre and adores chatting to the people there and assisting with whatever needs doing. One day her mom exclaimed tearfully and proudly: “I made a lady smile today and they told me she never smiles!” And then another time she said: “when this lady saw me, her eyes lit up! That’s the lady I made smile!” Susan said that her mother became quite emotional and had tears in her eyes when telling the story.
And so after checking with Susan, I decided to ask Joan if she would like to become a volunteer in the Activity Centre. She asked what that would mean. I told her that she would just carry on doing what she has been doing, but as a volunteer, not as a day care participant. She happily agreed.
Her daughters say she is like a different person. Initially, she could be quite judgmental of people living with dementia, but now her attitude is: “I am fit and healthy. Maybe instead of sitting at home alone, I can offer my help and make a difference.”
Joan is a person who is changing and growing. While at the care centre she is happy, engaged, socialised, recognised, affirmed, and making connections. She has also found a sense of compassion, meaning and purpose as a new volunteer who is making a valuable contribution to the programme and who is making a difference in the lives of others, even as a person who herself is living with dementia.
Storyteller: Debbie Christen, Certified Eden Associate (June 2015)
Community: Ron Smith Care Centre – Elphin Lodge, Rand Aid Association, Johannesburg. 150 residents and 154 employees. 15 residents and 10 employees directly benefited from this change.
Date: February 2019