In April 2014 I was asked to facilitate life story work at a care home that supports people living with dementia. Previous blogs record some of the positive changes that we’ve noticed. This morning I spent a few minutes catching up the team- two young members of care staff- to explore their observations about our work.
Charlotte has noticed how knowing the residents through their stories has really helped her support them through good and bad times. ‘We can have real conversations together. If someone’s upset or agitated I can begin talking about a place we both know or a story they’ve told me. Working with one man has changed how I see him. Staff used to try and get him to take his hat off and he got upset about that. I understand why it’s important for him to wear his hat. All his life he’s worn a hat- when he was a paperboy, in the boy scouts, in the Navy and in the Glider Air Corps. Now I understand why his hat is important and I can let the other staff know.’
This particular man is very frail now and has to stay in bed in his room. Charlotte says she knows his life story is of value to him. He said to her recently, ‘That’s the book we did together’.
I asked Charlotte and Lana how they share the resident’s stories with the rest of the team. ‘When we get spare time I get the books out and say; Have a read. Quite a few are surprised, especially the new staff who see people as ‘bed-bound’, not realising they used to be active people. But now they can see people because of their stories. The other staff are really interested in taking part and want to know what we’re doing.’
I asked them if they could generalise from their experiences of getting to know people through their stories. We’ve worked with about half the 29 residents. What about those whose stories we don’t really know yet? Charlotte said, that she felt differently towards the residents even if she hadn’t done a life story project with them.
I wondered if participating in the life story work had altered the way Charlotte and Lana felt about their jobs. Both agreed they felt more ‘satisfied with their work’. I asked why that was and they said that their relationships with the residents had improved, ‘You start to feel a bond with them’.
Charlotte told me that a couple of weeks ago she had found two of the female residents sitting side by side on the bed. They were reading through one of their life-story books and said they didn’t want to go to bed they wanted to have a ‘sleepover’ so they could carry on sharing stories. She said it was ‘really lovely’.
Lana also thought that one of the benefits was in getting families involved in the projects. Coming in to work on family histories gave relatives a real purpose and was a great catalyst for conversation. ‘Building relationships with families brings us all together’.
The care home has made a significant commitment to the value of life story work and this has been recognised in their most recent CQC inspection report. Two members of staff are ‘off the floor’ every fortnight to allow for clear project time. At handover everyone is reminded to keep the quiet lounge free so that we can have a dedicated workspace. There is access to a laptop computer for writing up stories and doing searches for relevant information or pictures. I am available for advice and support as needed but also, and perhaps more importantly, modelling ethical and practical approaches to life story work as part of the team.
A few minutes chatting with Charlotte and Lana reminded me of the many values of doing this work. Not only are the residents benefiting because they are known and understood in the context of their personal histories, but also through having a motivated and committed staff team. Staff retention is acknowledged as a major challenge in residential care. If life story work can increase job satisfaction, improve staff retention and develop respectful and genuine relationships between staff, residents and their families, there is a real potential for this simple approach to play a significant role in improving the culture of care for elderly frail people with dementia.