Volunteering with dementia

Just over a year ago we were given a challenge; to provide the opportunity for people with younger onset dementia to participate in our volunteering activities. Donna Blundell talks us through this exciting – and in truth slightly intimidating – partnership with Alzheimer’s Australia.

My name is Donna Blundell, and I have been working at Greening Australia for four and a half years, running the nursery and volunteer programs in the Canberra office. Greening Australia relies on hundreds of volunteers to help with growing native plants for restoration projects around Australia. But our volunteers also benefit from the physical activity and social interaction they get while contributing to important environmental work

A little over 12 months ago I had only recently become the volunteer coordinator, and I was still intimidated by many of the volunteers who had been giving their time and expertise much longer than I had been working there. Then along came Lorraine from Alzheimer’s Australia, who added another layer of anxiety but also a challenge and an opportunity to make a difference.

Lorraine is the Team Leader for people with younger onset dementia with Alzheimer’s Australia. She was searching for a stimulating activity for her clients, who are under 65 and generally fit and active. We thought there could be an opportunity in our nursery, so in April 2014 we invited a small group of 10 people and their carers to visit our nursery each Tuesday afternoon. This group was separate to our regular nursery volunteers so that the program could be tailored specifically for their capabilities.

At first I found some of the volunteers a little intimidating and was unsure how to communicate, but very soon the barriers broke down. They love to chat about the same things anyone else does – sport, the news, kids, grandkids, wives and even the realities of memory loss. It’s certainly never quiet! Many people forget that even with dementia they still have their personalities. Sometimes they can be extremely funny, and a few enjoy singing along as they work.

It can be challenging at times, and sometimes they can become confused or side tracked but it’s never a major problem to refocus them. The key is to provide clear instructions and be patient. Many of the group have no prior experience, but have carried out all types of tasks from weeding pots to seed cleaning to packing plant orders.

The group has been coming for over a year now, and we have never looked back on our journey towards achieving quality seedlings in our nursery and making a difference to lives of people (and their families) with dementia. They do the same amount and quality of work as our regular nursery volunteers, and have just as much pride in their work. And we know they are grateful to us for allowing them to have a go, respecting their input and making them feel safe.

For me, the experience has been very rewarding. Not only have the group opened my eyes to their ability to still perform meaningful tasks even with memory loss but they have made me aware that dementia is not as scary and confronting as it is made out to be. The clients are still able to communicate and have feelings, they are very pleased to be out and about in the community and proud that they can do something for the environment.

A few weeks ago one long term client was telling me how scared he was when he first turned up to Greening Australia. He did not know what he would be able to do or how he would do it, but now says that everything has fallen into place and he feels like he belongs. In fact, it’s the highlight of his week and if he could, he would come every day. Another long term client saw me outside of Greening Australia and came up to me saying that he can’t recall who I am but he knows me and that whatever I do with him makes him happy. I am glad that I can turn a bad period in someone’s life into a happy memory even if they are not sure why.

I would encourage anyone with a bit of time and even the slightest interest to try volunteer assistance. It may turn out to be life changing for you as it was for me. Knowing that others care makes a huge difference to their lives and those around them.

The National Dementia Helpline number is 1800 100 500