Reboot Hero | Chantelle Merritt

This week is Dementia UK’s ‘Time for a Cuppa’ campaign, fundraising for specialist dementia nurses to be able to support more families facing dementia. I went to Bridge House nursing home in Abingdon to interview this month’s Reboot Hero, Chantelle Merritt, to try to get a better understanding of dementia and how we can best help people who are suffering from it.

Chantelle is Lifestyle Co-ordinator at Bridge House. I met her briefly a few years ago, and was struck then by her passion and commitment to raising awareness of the disease. She is one of those rare people with what seems to me to be a true calling. 10 years ago she visited a care home for the very first time. The second time? She knew, with every fibre of her being, that this was where she wanted to be.

She has spent all her time since researching the disease and in professional training, thoroughly backed by the company she works for, to make sure she can ensure the lives of the residents are as joyful and happy as she can. Her work is about making them feel valued and understood, focusing on what they are feeling and thinking way out of the box to support them.  

And this isn’t just talk (which is an easy thing for the best of us to do) - Chantelle really walks her talk. During our chat, we met some of the residents and I saw how she laughed and chatted to them. You could see face after face light up and their delight in her company. Everything she does seems to have simply one aim - to make the lives of dementia sufferers better, brighter and happier. In fact, everyone I met in the nursing home (and I don’t want to sound over the top here, but the experience is rare enough to warrant notice) glows with care and compassion. Literally. As if that was the number one requirement for employment.

Chantelle is now on a mission to up awareness of dementia as widely as she can. She is Purple Angel Ambassador for Oxfordshire and is rolling the programme out in each of the company’s other homes, as well as working with groups and communities, talking in schools and to other carers. She has written a training manual for care homes which was published in 2013 and, more recently, an ‘Every Connection Counts’ manual. She runs courses in understanding dementia and is a qualified dementia mapper with Bradford University.  Much of the information in my last blog is gleaned from her years of learning.

I came away with my impressions of care homes totally transformed. I have frequently walked past what many of us perhaps imagine is standard. Those windows inside which people sit in chairs in rows - and when you walk back several hours later, there they still sit. I have visited elderly relatives in a few, and came away deeply saddened, praying that that would never be me, and that I could manage to stay in my own home until the ripe old age of whatever.

Bridge House made me re-think that entirely. It feels like a home - your own home, or as near to that as you could get. Light, bright and best of all alive. One of the most difficult things about getting much older, when many of your friends have died before you, is loneliness. Limited social interaction - left alone with your television for company more often than not. Society is not that kind to its older citizens. 

Here, you can be alone when you want to, and not if you don’t. There is a hair salon with massage, manicures and pedicures, a cinema, a library, various restaurants and even a private dining room where residents can invite their family over for lunch or supper. There are exercise classes, talks, and endless activities if you want them. And best of all, there are the lovely nurses and carers with all their experience and understanding.

My advice, for anyone even vaguely thinking about the topic - for themselves or for close family - would be to do your research of the care homes in your area now, when the need is not urgent. Visit as many as you can so you have a clear picture of what is on offer and can get yourself on any waiting list (because the good ones, like great schools, have waiting lists). 

The other thing I found out was that I don’t need to give up holidays and restaurants for the next 20 years to squirrel away my supplementary ‘care home fund’ after all. The Telegraph quotes statistics that show that, if you are not socially funded, the entire cost of staying in a care home is currently between £92,000 if you live in the South East of England and £50,000 for less expensive regions. Royal London, the insurance company, found that this sum is equivalent to 18 per cent of a property valued at £484,000. 

I came away entirely persuaded. And I learnt a lot. Now only a care home will do for me in my last days - with round the clock full time nursing, bed, board, laundry, drivers to take you where you want and everything you can think of all included. But whether there are many that feel like this one I do not know. There is a queue to get into Bridge House - and I wish I lived in Oxfordshire and could sign myself up now for a few decades down the line!

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Written by health advocate Sara Davenport, founder of one of the UK's leading breast cancer charities, Breast Cancer Haven. With over twenty years' experience in holistic health, Sara's digital dose of wellness teaches you to listen to your body, tweak your lifestyle and improve your health. 

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