By Caroline Turner, Dementia Friendly Leeds Admin Assistant
It’s hard to believe that it has been a year now since I first started volunteering for Dementia Friendly Leeds as an Admin assistant. After retiring 3 years’ ago I wanted to step out of my “comfort zone” of 30+ years (office, spreadsheets etc.) and do something that directly helped people, and connected with them.
Having become a carer for my (still fairly independent) 87-year old mother over the years, I felt I had a bit of understanding of the challenges of later life, so I got in contact with Age UK.
I took on a role with their Information and Advice service, visiting older people in their homes and helping them apply for Attendance Allowance (a daunting 32-page form!), as well as giving other benefits help. In the course of these visits I meet a huge variety of wonderful people, most of them living with physical and/or mental difficulties, often with little or no help.
I have become more aware of the impact of dementia on daily life, but also how much people living with dementia could still contribute. For example, I met a couple where one partner was living with physical disabilities and the other with early stage dementia, each of them supporting the other, with one person’s weakness being the other’s strength.
Something Was Missing
Perhaps the only drawback was that I found I was missing the social parts of being in an office. In addition to carrying on the one-to-one volunteer work at Age UK, I decided to seek out an additional, more office-based role in the same general area.
I saw the vacancy with Dementia Friendly Leeds advertised online, and began working a half day a week at the Leeds Older People’s Forum office, where staff from Time to Shine and Volition are also based. It has been a very enjoyable and interesting experience, in one of the nicest offices I have ever come across!
The main challenge for me has been becoming familiar with the work of Dementia Friendly Leeds and the variety of different organisations it works with, as well as gaining an understanding of the challenges facing those living with dementia. Putting together the e-newsletter has really helped with this, and I have been amazed at the number and variety of initiatives that are going on in our city.
I have helped out at a Dementia Cafes event, where I met some of the people involved, and I have also attended a DEEP group, meeting some of those directly affected by dementia, and hearing their experiences.
The DEEP Group
At the DEEP group I was particularly struck by how many people attended, all at different stages of dementia, even when getting there was quite difficult for them. It made me realise that dementia affects different people in different ways. One lady living with dementia was very articulate and contributed frequently, even if occasionally repeating herself.
Changing my Perception of Dementia
Working at Dementia Friendly Leeds has certainly changed my perception of dementia. I remember attending a Dementia Friends session and understanding for the first time how dementia affects someone emotionally as well memory-wise.
Realising that a person’s emotions persist even as their memories are disappearing, made me resolve to never treat a person with dementia any differently, just because they no longer know my name or what our relationship is.
I have recently been both moved by and full of admiration for Wendy Mitchell, who is living with early onset dementia, but has been able to write an online blog for the last three years. Her book, “Somebody I used to know”, based on this blog is due to be published soon, and is being serialised on Radio 4.
If I have any advice for others looking to do voluntary work after retirement, it would be to go for what interests you, but be prepared to end up doing something completely different from what you imagined! And because every volunteer role is different, you might find that you want to take on two.