dementia, older people

5 things I learned from working with older people

Here are some of the valuable life lessons I have learned during my time as an Activities Coordinator and Creative Writing Facilitator in care homes …

There is no such thing as an “old person”

OK, technically there is such a thing as an old person in that people who have reached old age do clearly exist! However, what I mean by this is that the concept many of us have of an “old person” –who is indistinct from every other old person and yet distinct in every way from everyone else in society – is a complete fallacy.

First of all, being old is not a personality trait or a set of characteristics. Just like every young person – or every person originating from the same country – every older person is different and unique. Conversely, older people do actually share similarities, interests and needs with the rest of us!

You don’t suddenly become a new person just because you reach a certain age; like you’re going along with your life and suddenly – boom! – you’re an “old person”. (What age would this be anyway? Is there an established age of when you’re officially classed as an old person?) Older people are the same people they always were, just having been alive a bit longer. This sounds really obvious but it’s surprising how much you hear statements referring to “old people” as though everyone over a certain age is an amorphous mass separate from the rest of society, rather than being millions of individuals with skills, opinions and interests just like the rest of us.

We all want to feel useful

I remember having a conversation with a carer who told me she wouldn’t want to do my job because she liked to feel “useful”. To me, this comment actually emphasised to me why the job of an Activities Coordinator is so important. Everyone likes to feel useful and have a sense of purpose – and that applies to older people too!

Being washed, fed, dressed, taken to the toilet and given medication are of course essential to the wellbeing of older people in care homes (and it’s a job I highly respect). However, I think it’s equally important that older people are also given activities that allow them to be creative, be productive, learn new skills, gain a sense of achievement and feel as though they are contributing to society in some way – whether that’s by making a cake their fellow residents can eat after dinner, creating Christmas cards to sell and donating the money to charity, or writing a poem others can enjoy.

Many activities for older people these days seem to be based on reminiscence or encouraging them to be passive consumers (by watching TV or listening to singers, for example) but I think it’s important older people are also given the opportunity to feel useful and engaged right now (which is what I try to do through my creative writing sessions). Rather than repeatedly telling older people – however indirectly – that their best times are behind them, creative activities allow older people to learn new things, engage with the world around them and create a meaningful present and future too.

Challenges can be overcome

I was once told by an external learning provider that the residents I was working with couldn’t take part in a flower arranging course because they wouldn’t be able to make much progress or learn new skills, and because they couldn’t complete a written report of their progress. I think it’s such a shame when older people miss out on such opportunities because they are lacking in certain skills, when they are more than capable of doing the things they set their mind to with the right help.

Doing activities with older people can require a lot of adaptations – even for a simple game of bingo, for example, you may need to remember which residents require large print sheets, who needs to be sat facing the bingo machine so they can see the numbers, who needs to be given a table to rest their sheet on as they can only use one arm, who can find the numbers but needs help marking them, who can mark the numbers but needs help finding them, etc – but this has taught me to look for the solutions, rather than focusing on the challenges, which is something I can also apply to my own life.

Many older people have learned to overcome a whole host of physical, cognitive and emotional challenges and just keep on going, which I think is incredibly inspiring.

Life is not always best lived in the fast lane

I have a tendency, like many people, to rush through life and keep myself busy. However, working with older people has really helped me to appreciate the importance of taking life a little more slowly and just making time to sit and enjoy a conversation.

When I first started working with older people, I tended to try to rush through activities as I was so focused on trying to achieve my “goal” and get to the finished product, whether that was filling in a life history booklet, finishing a craft activity or completing a piece of creative writing. However, I quickly learned that you can’t rush an activity with older people – or even guarantee that it will ever be finished. People will wander off or nod off in the middle of an activity, work at a much slower pace than you may have anticipated, or prefer just to chat rather than do whatever activity you are approaching them with. And that’s absolutely fine!

I started to learn that the process was more important than the finished product, and sometimes the best moments were when I just abandoned the activity entirely, pulled up a chair, and had a good chat with someone in need of some company and conversation.

Relationships are everything

From many conversations with older people about their lives, their memories and the things that make them happy, I have had reaffirmed that essential truth we all stumble across at some point – relationships make the world go round! Many of the residents have forgotten lots of the details of their lives, but what they will tell you about time and again are the people that are most important to them. Also, no activity I have ever done has provoked as much happiness in a resident as an unexpected visit from a family member or friend.

One of the reasons I love my job so much is because of the connections and relationships I build with the residents I work with. It was lovely to visit a care home I had worked in recently and receive a huge hug from one of the ladies with dementia. I knew it was unlikely she would remember who I was, but I was so happy she associated my presence with some sort of positive emotion. It reminded me of that quote from Maya Angelou: “At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”, which may be especially true of people with some memory loss.

Overall, older people have definitely taught me to slow down, make time for conversation and make the most of my relationships – and also the value of taking plenty of naps! 🙂



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