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Julia Jones, CoFounder of John’s Campaign, supports Care Home Open Day in Braintree

Perhaps the highest aspiration for a care home is that its residents shouldn’t realise that a ‘care home’ is where they live. Not the residents with dementia anyway. The words ‘care home’ and ‘carer’, with their modern meanings, weren’t in the language when they were young. Dementia challenges us to think more deeply about the concept of Home. Not necessarily a specific domestic location but at the least a place of safety; a place where you know who you are – and others know you – a place where you have a right to be, and perhaps some measure of control.
All those considerations could make the concept of Care Home Open Day seem difficult: care home residents should not be on display, like flowerbeds in an Open Garden. Not unless they are able retain some control over the proceedings, feel confident that in some sense they are the hosts. 

I’ve just returned from Riverdale, a newly opened care home in Braintree, tucked away in a quiet part of the town and determined to become part of its community. One of its success is the relationship it has developed with a local primary school. Every Friday (and that’s every Friday, not just Care Home Open Day Friday) a group of five children from the John Ray school come and eat lunch with the residents. (the Riverdale care home is very intimate, so these numbers are proportionate). They then stay and take part in art or nature based activities – or games or music. 

Lisa Ramsey, the teacher organising the visits tells me that these visits are invariably popular with the children who often ask if they can come again or ask their families if they can visit at weekends. Today Lisa had brought rather more children than usual, to celebrate six months of working together. She had chosen them from her ‘Nurture’ group (Special Needs to you and I) because she felt it would be especially good for their self-esteem. A couple of the mothers had also decided to take advantage of the Open Day to see where it was that their children were visiting.  Debbie, the activity leader had set out some displays of the children’s and residents’ work collected over the previous months but these felt as natural as giving a grandchild’s school project pride of place on the mantelpiece. 

I was talking to 9 year old Archie, visiting for the first time, and asked him how he felt. ‘A bit nervous,’ he answered.  He had found it odd that he and his friends had come down from the entrance in a lift. (The care home is built on the side of a little valley so the main entrance, dining room and some bedrooms are higher than the garden, activity area and riverside.) Then residents Jean and Hilda appeared, both of them in wheelchairs, and the purpose of the lift became clear.  ‘Do all old people have to be in wheel chairs?’ Archie asked but very quickly answered himself, ‘I don’t suppose they do because everyone’s different.’ He and his friend Joel (also aged 9) and I then enjoyed a reflective conversation about growing and aging and possibly shrinking. We agreed that you could never been quite certain what rate of change your body might have in store for you. Neither of them had very old people as part of their daily lives. Just before they moved off to the garden together I asked Archie whether he was still feeling nervous, ‘No,’ he answered beaming, and watching Hilda in her wheelchair. ‘I think coming here is like visiting the Queen.’

While we had been talking I had been watching resident Laurie talking very seriously to another child, presumably about the plant pot that the boy had decorated. Laurie didn’t want to go through to the garden with the rest of the party so he stayed behind and I asked whether I might join him. I explained I was a visitor who had been invited with the children. Laurie was confused about personalities and happenings but emotionally he was thoughtful. He was thinking about the boy he’d just been talking to.  ‘He’ll be a very good boy’ he said, ‘A very good boy indeed.’ It was rather like a blessing. Laurie hadn’t got any idea of the specifics of the school / care home relationship: ‘They come through,’ he said, ‘And then they go on.’ But somehow he’d grasped the fundamentals that they, the older generation were giving something to the younger ones. ‘This is a very peculiar place,’ he told me several times (and I began to worry whether he was feeling uneasy or disorientated) ‘But I think we’ve got it about right.’  At which point it became clear to me that Laurie saw himself as part of the management team and I felt vastly relieved.

The children had gone by the time I rejoined Hilda and Jean but they too seemed to accept me as part of a continuum. Jean commented that I’d grown a great deal since she last saw me and then began reminiscing about our shared relatives in Romford. Clearly she was accepting me as a family member she couldn’t quite place. Hilda meanwhile was tearing up a paper napkin. As I finally prepared to leave she became urgent and I realised she wanted to dictate a message. It read: ‘With best wishes to everyone, from Auntie Hilda’. When I took it with me on my journey home I did indeed feel that we had made invisible connections. And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what a Care Home Open Day should always be about, on any day of the year. 

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