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Forty two old ladies shared the Day Room on the first floor of North House, Cheadle Royal Hospital in 1975. I assumed consultant responsibility in November of that year, on my appointment as first Psycho-geriatrician in the North West Region. These ladies had come together via periods of care by the South Manchester Geriatric Medicine service. All had multiple physical health problems, including sensory impairments. All were living with advanced, sometimes complicated, dementia.

Forty two beds were distributed between single rooms (four) and dormitories of up to twelve beds. There were shared toilets and bathrooms. The Day Room served a sitting area, dining area and for activities.

Before my appointment there would be weekly visits from a Consultant Physician in Geriatric Medicine from the University Hospital of South Manchester. Ongoing medical presence came for the junior doctors and staff-psychiatrists of Cheadle Royal. Nurses were excellent and supported within the culture of excellence which Cheadle Royal radiated. Matron and Physician Superintendent lived within the grounds and were always available when needed.

But nursing and medical care were not enough if these 42 old ladies were to enjoy a life in their last months and years. So it was that May, a local phenomenon, was appointed to discover and provide a range of activities which could benefit this group of altered individuals.

May was known to be someone special: She had been born and raised within Cheadle Royal – her father was the head gardener. She never married but lived with and cared for her mother and father as they grew old. She worked in a local grocery shop. It is said people came to the shop simply to soak in some of the joy which May brought to every day and every eventuality.

So she came to North House – and while the nurses and doctors attended to their work, May looked and listened and asked and began to put together hopes and ideas that might encourage individuals from the 42 to risk a word or a smile or a shout. A scream or a laugh.

There were things to learn from visitors. They began to come more often – supporting their own but also supporting others and the nurses, and May. Music and songs from way back. Stuff to handle and perhaps make something with. And games. May created raised playgrounds by pushing tables together – So much easier with squared or oblong tables than round tables. A ball – large and soft – could be rolled across and demand a response from whoever might field it. There were variations where people were equipped with table tennis bats – Names called out to raise attention. Cheers when a good hit was achieved.

I will never forget the day she brought in a pet mouse – took it cupped in her hands to show to one and then another.

‘A mouse! A wee mouse!’ Cried one quite wicked old woman – Full of the glee and horror of it.

When Albert Kushlick visited the unit he was entranced by May’s commitment and ability to engage with these ladies, despite their multiple impairments. Albert had helpfully identified four levels of caring: 24 hour care (family), 12 hour care (nurses on shifts), 2-4 hour care (therapists of various modes) and hit and run (Consultants!). That put us in our place. Therapists were hard to find on the long-stay wards of Mental Hospitals or Care of the Elderly units – It was said that their skills were not required as the resident patients were unable to respond to therapy.

May and others like here were there to give the lie this. She had no certificates or diplomas, but she had a great capacity to share her love and humble respect for all human beings. She had talents and she drew on experience and learned from others – She transformed life for the 42, for their families and for the other staff.

Circumstance took me to the edge of the grounds of Cheadle Royal Hospital last week. The air and trees brought back an intense recall of all which May taught me. We are grateful.


Each week we post a blog from David Jolley where he shares his personal views on relevant subjects.

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