They used to be known as God’s Waiting Rooms but everyday life in care homes today is far from dull. Stephen Pullinger reports.
Janet Tanfield is in many respects the central figure at Downham Grange care home. She is not the manager but the activities co-ordinator.
She firmly believes that life in a care home can bring exciting new learning experiences and says that is as true for herself as it is for the residents.
The twinkle in her eye and her infectious laugh single her out as a born entertainer, but in fact her role at one of Norfolk’s flagship modern homes represents a dramatic life change.
She confesses that her first career, handling multi-million pound budgets as pensions and investments director at Essex County Council, was “not half as much fun”.
After taking early retirement and volunteering at the London Olympics – “an amazing experience” – she eventually moved up to Wisbech in Cambridgeshire to be closer to her daughter and grandson.
Janet, 65, said: “I knew Annabel (Banister), the manager at Downham Grange, and she invited me to a barbecue at the home last summer.
“I thoroughly enjoyed it, seeing the enjoyment the residents got from the relations and the entertainment.”
When the opportunity came up to join the team she jumped at the chance “to work with people and put something back”.
She said: “Some people have the preconceived idea that care home residents are quite introverted – but they are not like that at all.
“Many of our residents at Downham Grange are living with dementia, but they are chatty and love talking about their lives.
“They respond really well when you talk about things years ago.
“We talked about Ronnie Corbett when he died and they remembered other comedians who had made them laugh and shows where they had gone to see them.
“That reminiscence is brilliant, it is them talking about things that have brought them pleasure in their life.”
She said many residents also enjoyed talking about things going on today; it was a misconception that people with dementia just lived in the past.
Janet said: “A lot of skills they have acquired through their life are still there; it is just about encouraging them to participate in activities.”
She proudly points to the bean, pea and tomato plants flourishing in pots on the window sill of the activities lounge.
“Residents planted the seeds and they have been helping me water them too,” she said.
One of Janet’s favourite times of day is early morning when she does her tour of the lounges and the bedrooms in the home’s upstairs nursing area.
She said: “I go around and say ‘good morning’ and we have a general chat about the weather. I might say what I did over the weekend and ask them if they want a haircut.
“We have some quite vocal residents but when you start talking to them you can see them listening.
“They’ll smile and sometimes they will pat my hand; it is nice when you get that contact.”
Janet is currently working on a busy programme of events from coffee mornings to a photographic exhibition and even a Downham bake-off competition.
“It is great to bring people into the home. Our residents love to feel part of the community of Downham Market even if they can’t get out,” she said.
Janet feels like she is starting another chapter of her life at Kingsley Healthcare-run Downham Grange and wants to create the same positive feeling for the residents.
She said: “I want to make it as enjoyable a time as possible for them, to bring a sense of wellbeing and worth; it is about keeping that stimulation going.”
Click here to find more about Downham Grange.