Maureen volunteers for Mind Active (MA) in a role supporting people with dementia to access a social life. The MA ethos is to support local volunteers to improve the lives of people living with debilitating conditions like dementia, who live in care homes or in their own home. Sessions are planned to improve well-being and social interaction as well as mental stimulation. The project facilitates many activities including quizzes, history talks, sing-alongs, poetry and karaoke. The client group also participate in reminiscence work, gentle movements and outdoor interests as well as many other community interactions.
I met with Maureen one morning just before an activity session at the Briardale Community Centre. Describing her role she explained “it requires empathy and an understanding of the difficulties people face in the community and you need to be non-judgemental and friendly”. Indeed, she does anything to assist the team to provide a successful service or event. But specifically Maureen, welcomes guests, both the person with the condition and their carers, as well as the bereaved carers of dementia sufferers. “I engage in conversation with them and listen to what they have to say, and try to put them at their ease”. She believes understanding their loneliness and isolation “makes a huge difference”. However, Maureen does very practical things to help too, such as making and serving drinks, setting up and serving food, clearing away and washing dishes. “I encourage people to join in with the entertainment, making sure they are happy, safe and comfortable.” Furthermore, she really enjoys working alongside the young students “providing some mentoring where needed” and raises awareness of the project using social media. Maureen has attended Planning and Trustee meetings, where she has learnt about fund raising sources, in fact she participates in many of the fundraising events herself.
Maureen spreads her volunteering time between Mind Active at Briardale Blyth and The Salvation Army building in Bedlington “doing a very similar job but with a slightly different group of people.” Spending between 4 and 6 days per month working between them both, although she does do more “if there are any trips out arranged, or parties to attend!” She feels that volunteers need to show the client group that nothing they do is abnormal, but at the same time acknowledge that partners of people with dementia have needs too. So, for that reason people need to show they are ‘genuine’ people, willing to take a risk. For example,” I know it’s not easy to get up and start singing or dancing in front of total strangers that’s why I have to demonstrate that I’m a bit shy too, but willing to get up and dance anyway!
The early part of Maureens career was insurance and finance based giving her an organisational background and a sound understanding of administration. However, she spent the last 10 years of employment working in a more person centred but totally different environment, within the elderly care sector, which gave her a good insight into the needs of people with dementia. “I was widowed 7 years ago and retired 18 months ago. But, after I retired I wanted to continue to be useful in the community and have a purpose in life. I also wanted to keep some structure to my life” and “offer the skills I had, whilst giving me a chance to socialise and continue to build new relationships”.
Whilst working in the care sector (as an activity co-ordinator for the RMBI at Scarborough Court) Maureen had become familiar with MA, finding their support in her role to be invaluable. She knew the team and had a good idea of what they did, saying “they fill a huge gap in the lives of people who use the service”. After retiring and a chance meeting at a charity run with Project Manager Stephen Ward, Maureen was encouraged to attend an activity. “That was back in August 2017 and I've been involved ever since!”
Skills from both of Maureens previous jobs have helped her in her current role, although she emphasised that previous training isn’t necessarily required. Undeniably, she admits, due to the underlying condition, that some situations or personalities may come across as quite challenging. But, she feels these situations are manageable because “the secret is to find ways round the issue using distraction techniques.” Maureen passes on this knowledge and reassures the students she mentors so they’re not startled by any unexpected behaviours.
Although she hasn’t attended any so far, there have been opportunities for Maureen to attend further training with MA, and the project also offers other benefits such as a volunteers petrol allowance and “you can get a bite to eat whilst you’re here”. Maureen recently began thinking about the administration side of things “because an awful lot goes on behind the scenes to give people this service” In fact, she has attended a Trustee meeting to understand better, how the organisation functions and how it supports itself financially, and hopes to develop her role in that direction.
Maureen said she has never volunteered for any kind of reward, except the sense of reward she gets from helping people. Saying, “I suppose it’s a selfish thing really, seeing people really enjoying themselves” then thinking “I contributed to that!” However, as a reward for her volunteering with Mind Active she was put forward to receive an award from the Duchess of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle last year, and taking her proud son with her, she had an amazing day out. Maureen smiled saying “It was wonderful to get that recognition for the work I do. I felt quite important and it gave me a lift…all that getting up and going, well it was worth it after all!”
“I was made to feel very welcome, the team made me feel very comfortable and relaxed”, she feels there is nothing better than feeling that you are needed in a positive practical way. “I think I have developed my counselling and listening skills and have more empathy for carers in the community and a better understanding of their issues and needs.” The team led by Stephen “give feedback to one another continually, as we evaluate each session in post event discussions and debriefing sessions”, thereby learning to improve on what they offer. The work itself provides immense satisfaction and the team are constantly told how much their events are appreciated “how much folk enjoy the events, in fact their return to our events time after time and the friendships they forge are very strong indicators of how much our service is valued”
When asked about any positives she takes away from her volunteering role Maureen said she felt very privileged that her efforts had been recognised and was recommended for an award at Alnwick by the Duchess of Northumberland. But “every single member of the team thanks me personally at every session and I always come away feeling of value”. She feels her role has actually brought many positives experiences including, “working with genuine positive and like-minded people, making a lot of good friends, being able to make a real difference to peoples lives and witnessing the many happy moments that we make happen together”. Ultimately, however she feels the greatest positive has been the focus and interest it has brought to her own life by “simply feeling useful!”
On the other hand, If Maureens story has inspired you to volunteer more generally, but you’re unsure how to, please visit Northumberland CVA’s Volunteer Connect database http://www.northumberlandcva.org.uk/volunteering/volunteers to start exploring all of our many other opportunities.