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Sunday, 11 March 2012

Work Experience - RASS

I would like to write today on the subject of work experience, and more specifically my experience of it. One of the placements I have is working as a volunteer at a nursing home called The Royal Alfred Seafarers Society, for 2 hours every sunday. The home is almost exclusively for those who served in the Royal Navy, or in the Merchant Navy; and specialises in treating dementia - an extremely prevalent and saddening condition in the elderly.

Unfortunately, there is very little an unpaid, untrained volunteer can do, as most of the jobs are delegated to the experienced nurses. However, I do have a few roles. I like to think of myself as the home's welcome party - whenever there is a new resident I am asked to greet them, welcome them in and have a chat with them about their life, their career, their family and just about anything really. I also chat, in a similar fashion, with other incumbent residents every week. In addition to this, the RASS has spectacular gardens and scenery and whenever the weather's nice, I ask around if any of the residents would like a walk around the garden. I say walk - unfortunately the majority of residents are too weak to use their legs and so my job is to push them in their wheelchairs. It is an enjoyable bonding experience nonetheless, and it really is encouraging to see their positive reactions to the great outdoors.

As I mentioned earlier, the home specialises in treating dementia. What is dementia? In a nutshell, it is a condition caused by diseases such as Alzheimer's, characterised primarily and most notably by memory loss, but also other symptoms such as personality changes and impaired reasoning. It is a particularly saddening condition because sometimes the memory loss is so severe. Once, I was tasked with asking a resident to sign some Christmas cards for his family. He seemed fine at first, able to write the first couple of letters of 'love from'. Then dementia set in: he suddenly dropped his pen. I picked it up and handed it back to him, but after a few rough strokes it wasn't long before he admitted he had forgotten how to write, and that he had no idea what he writing about. Completely new to dementia at the time, I couldn't quite believe it. I bewilderedly filled out the last few letters of 'love from' and handed the pen back to him, to see if he could sign his name. And then it was the next bit that was most tragic - this particular resident had forgotten his own name. I was shocked. I won't conceal it, I had never given much thought to dementia. I held the rather na├»ve and insensitive view that dementia was only a minor condition - HIV is imploding Sub-Saharan Africa everyday, that was a big deal. But dementia? Dementia never directly killed anyone. How wrong I was. 

Dementia steals identities. A once proud, successful, vibrant life now effectively ended, replaced by pure nothingness. An empty body, you could say - the lights are on, but nobody's home, and nobody will ever come home. This leads me onto my experiences today. I was asked to welcome a new resident, who we shall call Mr. X. I was informed Mr. X was a former Head of Intelligence in the Royal Navy, in which he served for around 60 years. He seemed like a very friendly, engaging person, and spoke with that air of intelligence that makes the conversation flow just that little bit better. The trouble came when I asked him what his job as HoI entailed. He had to think long and hard about it, and his answer of "the odd job here and there" seemed like a rather empty, unsatisfying response to me. Unfortunately Mr. X had dementia. Fortunately, it wasn't severe. But again I saw the horrifying effects of dementia. One of the country's greatest heroes: fighting during WW2, progressing to HoI, serving for 60 years. A life to be celebrated by all, and with many lavish stories to tell. Now all that was left was a few scraps of memory here and there. A general outline - he remembered that he was HoI, but no detail - he couldn't remember what his job was like. Dementia is one of life's greatest tragedies. Such a prominent man reduced to almost nothing. A grave shame indeed.

In my experience, the vast majority of new residents tend to like the RASS. It is an outstanding, clean and well designed home, with exceptional facilities and a loving, dedicated staff. However there is the odd anomaly every now and again. The biggest reason for this is that they simply don't want to be there, for whatever reason. This story was no different. Today I was told to avoid another resident. She was new too. I do not know why Mrs. Y was admitted here, but it was clear she disagreed with whoever or whatever placed her here. Over the past week she had been barking to the nurses from her wheelchair, "Nurse nurse! Get the police, police! I've been kidnapped! Urgent!". Obviously, no nurses felt obliged to call the police, but this is another prime example of the tragedy caused by mental illness and dementia. Mrs. Y was also known to ask to have her wheelchair placed next to her husband's in the lounge area. Her husband? Try the resident who forgot his own name. Were they married? No, he had been at the home for several years, she had been here for one week - they did not know each other, and the extent of the dementia would, unfortunately, mean they would be unlikely to start their 'marriage.' From a certain, disturbing perspective, one might find this story somewhat comical. However, in reality, it is far from it. It is a harrowing story of how dementia can ravage a person so greatly that such events could ever happen.

We do not know great deals about dementia and Alzheimer's. But I know these patients can't be saved now. A panacea may cure them of their memory loss but ultimately their memories have been lost forever in the warps of time and space, never to be discovered again. Such a shame.

Signing off on that rather sombre note,

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