Thirty years is a long time in one job and when you finally make the decision to jump ship life can get a bit scary. Whilst I’d maintained a grip on reality by working as a freelance sports journalist as a hobby, Local Government was all I’d known until 2013. Not that I’m complaining the way things worked out, but I was a direct victim of the 2008 crash. A bunch of bankers who would probably have taken less risk if they’d put their funds on the 2:30 at Kempton Park had produced a siesmic schockwave that gave birth to austerity. By the time the aftershocks had reached rural Hertfordshire a department of 29 had to find £100,000 from somewhere. To be honest I’d always wanted to get out at a certain time so unlike so many people who had their lives turned upside down it suited me at the time. My passage out was eased by being taken on immeadiately by an Environmental consultancy run by someone I’d known for a good 20 years. What followed was three years of editing a website, event organising and conducting You Tube interviews. The latter led to me being called the “Public Health Parkinson” by a certain Director of Public Health. Fun as it was a lot of it was achieved on-line and I began hankering for the day to day contact of working with people once again.
Doing a Google search on ‘charity jobs’ may well have changed many lives and it certainly changed mine. I learned that the Alzheimer’s Society were looking for a Group Activity Support Manager in West Essex, whatever one of those was? In for a penny in for a pound I applied with little hope of success, after all what did I really know about dementia? To my great surprise I was offered an interview along with the task of preparing a presentation to persuade commissioners about the value of social groupings for people living with dementia! Now I’m no stranger to presentations having once talked to Commenwealth MP’s about climate change at the Houses of Parliament but this one had me foxed. In the end I started with a game of tiddly winks to demonstrate how games can break the ice and lighten the mood and finished with a recording of Sam from 1988 (See A Little Bit of History Part 1) and it did the trick.
To be honest my first day didn’t bode well for the future, I was expecting an introduction to dementia and the services of the Alzheimers Society I got a pile of policies to read through and a form to assure I understood them. Things didn’t get much better as I was introduced to Salesforce and Arena the internal computer systems which were as blunt as the bluntest of instruments. Two weeks in I injured my foot and was forced to limp about on a crutch for seven days. By then I had been let loose on the groups I was charged with managing which already left me worrying about the wisdom of using a 17th building with a spiral fire escape and an area of glass floor for one of our venues! My injury coincided with an illness for one of my group leaders which left me faced with the prospect of leading two activity groups while hobbling on a crutch. At the time I was terrified now I look back and recognise it was one of the pivotal moments which dictated what I’m doing now and why I’m writing things like this blog.
That day I learned more about how to communicate with people living with dementia than any book could tell me. The key I found was simple…be yourself. I’m a North London lad who loves music and football I was faced with a roomful of people who may live in Essex but virtually all had London roots everyone was up for a laugh and once I got chatting to Elsie about the Dave Clark Five playing Tottenham Royal and Bernard about Leyton Orient I was in. From that day I developed friendships with our group members and their families some of which I’m happy to say remain today. Thats not to say it was all easy going. The first time I realised what dementia was really about was one Monday afternoon. I was sitting with George looking at a picture of Mohammed Ali, “Do you like boxing George?” I asked “I used to box in the army I was a bantomweight,” he replied before giving me a complete description of one of his fights from the 50’s. A couple of minutes later I’d drifted away to another table when George beckoned me over, “Pete” he said “Remind me where the toilet is again.”
I also quickly learned that a life in Environmental Health had given me the ability to think on my feet as it was obvious that despite the reams of policies and procedures little was going to be invested in teaching me how to cope with what was thrown at me everyday. From questions about 85 year old former boxers having a knife to peel their lunchtime apple to carers crying on my shoulder it certainly couldn’t be described as anything but interesting.
Looking back my first few months were certainly a case of sink or swim, on one hand I was working hard to gain the confidence of our group members, my staff and volunteers, on the other I was already banging my head against a wall of bureaucracy that even 30 years in local government hadn’t prepared me for.