Entering the Kingfisher Care Home in Cleveleys is a bit like being cocooned in a warm blanket. I’ve been in several such places over the years, visiting elderly friends and relatives, but this was a real home from home. Installed in the hallway between lounges, waiting to take photographs, I watched as friendly staff moved around, chatting to residents and ensuring they were comfortable. All was very calm and peaceful. I was there to meet Lindsay Wylie, the owner, and Gillian Hesketh, owner and director of Happy Days Publishing and Dementia Workshop. Part of Gillian’s business is to supply a wide range of memory prompts and nostalgic materials for people living with dementia. These include memory boxes of articles that the residents would have used in the past: aids to memory and reminiscing. As we entered the lounge many of the residents were resting or asleep. Others waved us away, not wishing to have their peaceful afternoon disturbed. I began to doubt that Gillian and her assistant, Sue, would be able to generate any interest in the activities. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within minutes of some of the artefacts were being distributed, residents were visibly coming to life. I found it very moving to see their eyes begin to sparkle, and their faces break into smiles of recognition, as the articles were passed around.
Wind up musical toys began to tinkle, replicas of old Dinky cars were pushed up and down imaginary roads, and juggling balls were thrown in the air with glee. Meanwhile, dancing bubbles were being chased with hands that, many years previously, had nurtured babies or done any number of physical tasks.
One lady touched me more than any other. She had sat quietly, eyes closed, hands in her lap, taking little interest in the activities around her, when suddenly birdsong rose above the background chatter. The lady’s head shot up and she asked if the window was open. A singing plaster bird was passed to her and she instantly cradled it in her hands, talking quietly and stroking it like a tiny pet. The transformation in this lady’s demeanour was astonishing. With one small ornament she had become totally animated. Afterwards, I visited Gillian Hesketh at her place of work and asked her about the Happy Days Publishing and Dementia Workshop. With great enthusiasm she told me that it evolved after she took a degree and a Masters in creative writing, and became very interested in memory and reminiscence. She was particularly intrigued by the long-term memory and emotions of dementia patients. After being contacted by Michelle Smith of Blackpool Carers’ Centre, Gillian was commissioned to write a programme for working with young and adult carers, and went on to develop materials and products which she felt would best provoke memories of times gone by. Having tested the products, Gillian began to run workshops for carers and care home managers, to ensure they understood how to enrich social care for the people they were working with. Gillian informed me that all packs of materials also contain conversation prompts and carers’ guides, vital if they are to stimulate communication between carers, visitors, families and residents, or between the residents themselves. The memory packs are designed to appeal to all senses. Lavender bags evoke an era of laundered hankies; juggling balls and squeezable shapes not only spark memories of touch and feeling but are also valuable tools for exercising arthritic hands; bright colours and musical or mechanical sounds become visual and aural treats.
Gillian’s workplace is an Aladdin’s cave of products; cards, pictures and displays from every era. Baskets of old-fashioned washing materials jostle for position with Oxo cube tins, 1960s model cars, vinyl records and adverts for Butlins. Boxes of old or replica postcards, organised by decade, line up along one wall. Stacks of drawers, labelled with their contents – aprons, curlers, knitting wool, woodworking tools – sit next to an old clothes horse, bucket and dolly pegs. Colouring books, full of images from my childhood in the 1950s, poke out from underneath 60s knitting patterns, spinning tops and juggling balls.
There really is something for everybody. The idea might be a simple one – Gillian’s aim is to stimulate people suffering from dementia – but this is clearly a thoroughly researched and well thought out business, with enquiries and orders from not only local individuals and care homes but from much further afield. When I visited, Gillian and Sue were busy packing up a large order for an NHS hospital in Scotland, planning to use some of the materials to decorate walls and instigate conversations with visitors, carers and dementia patients. For all involved, and certainly for myself, this was a totally worthwhile and uplifting afternoon.
Happy Days Publishing is aptly named. This really was a happy day. The accompanying images of residents’ faces and hands are testament to this, and those images and memories will remain with me for a very long time.
For more information about Happy Days, visit: www.dementiaworkshop.co.uk