There’s a donkey in the living room. If that’s not surreal enough, there’s a North West soccer star, Bill Haydock, patting him. And that’s between giving balloon “football” tips to six-year-old Zach, and Isobel, eight, children of activities co-ordinator Paula Johnson-Roberts at Haddon Court Rest Home, Haddon Road, Norbreck, where Billy enjoys occasional day care.
I’ve followed Rusty the donkey up the disabled access rank, on the tail end of a reception second to none, unless you count the clamour from kids at Brian House, the children’s hospice, at Bispham, half an hour earlier.
The donkey underpins what may seem like a tall tale to many for its part of the therapy package at Haddon Court, which specialises in caring for elderly residents with dementia.
Rather like the elephant in the living room – and, no, there isn’t one of those – some residents fail to register the donkey, or calmly accept the sudden presence of the placid newcomer in the parallel universe which represents their own, inner, reality.
For the rest, the rising hubbub of sound, chat, laughter, arising from a disorderly queue forming to pat, stroke, or even sing to the donkey, is testimony to the therapeutic benefits of this visit.
Here at Haddon Court rest home residents, some in their sixties, others in their nineties, are all at varying stages of surrender to one of the cruelest conditions of all.
But all, reckons home manager Les Salthouse, will benefit from this visit, including their family.
“It lifts the atmosphere,” he admits. “You can feel the benefits afterwards. It all adds to the quality of life here.”
Donkeys, like dolphins, spread happiness. They can spread other things too, which is why Rusty’s minder, from a Manchester sanctuary that specialises in therapy visits, is equipped with shovel and brush.
But he is on his best behaviour. And the smiles of recognition or bright-eyed curiosity make it all worthwhile.
The lucky ones glimpse long lost childhoods, snatches of memories from a lifetime ago, when they were children, or their children, or grandchildren, played on the sands and pleaded for a donkey ride and an ice cream. The ice cream is to come. Today’s treat is sherry.
Here at Haddon, staff don’t believe in over-medicating elderly residents into oblivion or compliance, the complaint levelled at some rest and care homes by a Government report looking at the timebomb of dementia and how society is coping with increased numbers of ageing residents.
Here it is a pick and mix of care, therapy, stimuli, outings, and activities, for those who can still appreciate such, and for others who simply benefit from a change of surroundings.
It is underpinned by a tangible sense of affection, as well as care, which extends to visitors, soon falling into new-found roles as someone else’s daughter or niece, having been mistaken for such, receiving hugs and kisses upon leaving, in the poignant certainty that all will soon be forgotten.
Within 10 minutes of Rusty’s departure, most of the residents have forgotten the visit, but that is the nature of dementia, a condition which carries undeserved stigma, and brings a wealth of heartbreak for those left behind by a loved one’s loss of self.
Activities co-ordinator Paula emphasises quality of life for the residents – evident in the feel-good factor felt by those who have welcomed the diversion from the routine.
“There’s so much love here,” admits the former care worker, who retrained after a back injury.
“I’m here 9am to 5pm and see such benefits, whether improved motor skills, or social interaction, from the activities. It’s nice to have my own kids here as it adds to the residents’ feeling of being at home.”
Former bobby Peter McGailey and his NHS worker wife Claire introduced Paula’s role after buying Haddon two years ago.
“There couldn’t be a better person for it than Paula,” says Peter. “Some say she has given them their mum or dad back. We couldn’t have a better manager either. They care, and that really matters.”
The couple also run Wyreside Cafe, Stanah, and, once open, Central Library’s cafe, with emphasis on community involvement.
“Wyreside’s great for other rest homes and gives our residents a real lift. It’s almost bespoke for their needs and they love to go out.”
As for former football star Bill? He’s life and soul of the party, playing balloon “headers” with Zach and saying he has a future in football.
And Bill should know, having played 347 league games, including for Man City, before managing Port Elizabeth FC in South Africa, and coaching Preston North End (under Bobby Charlton), and in Iceland, France, Sweden and Norway.
“Did I ever tell you about Bert Trautmann?” he asks. Zach hangs on every word as Bill talks of his old team mate, the former German paratrooper, who became City’s most fearless goalie, playing on after breaking his neck in the FA Cup Final in 1956. Memories really are made of this...