Sally and Christian Wilse (right)
Tell us about Seniors Helping Seniors.
There’s an army of older people with the desire, skills and experience to help other people of a similar age who may not be as healthy or active as they are. Wonderful people who, after a lifetime of working, want to cut back but not stop altogether. We have found a way to combine that with the fact that it can also be easier for people to accept support if it comes from someone from a similar generation. Seniors Helping Seniors is an award-winning ‘profit for purpose’ care company. It started in Canterbury, Kent, and now totals five UK offices, offering care in around Guildford, Ashford, Harrow and Tonbridge, in addition to the Canterbury area. The company matches those who want to help with those who need it and we fully manage all the processes.
Why is there such a need for your service?
People want to stay in their own homes even when they find it difficult to care or cook for themselves. Clients may be coping with many different kinds of diagnosis or they may just be feeling lonely. We are there for all the ups and downs of life but the calls usually come in about dementia or when a spouse dies and it was he or she who made the meals.
There’s an immense need for people to find support as they may not have close family to help day-to-day. If the same person can visit on a regular basis, the individual can remain independent. Neighbours and friends are helpful but people worry about monopolising their time and asking for handouts. This generation is very proud. It’s about being back in control and making choices.
Why is food such a focus of your work?
It’s the quickest route to excite people about their lives again! Loneliness is a big issue. And when you’re on your own, the routines of cooking and eating properly often go out the window. Our job is to find out what a person likes. And that quickly turns to what they like to eat and what they would have cooked in the past. A carer will start a conversation around food, look at recipe boxes and recipe books on the shelves and they’ll write a shopping list together.
It takes a certain kind of person to do this because you need to be willing to take instruction and make the meals the way the client wants. We only ever work to their direction. It’s often traditional, hearty meals that people love but don’t feel are worth making for one – meat and two veg, followed by a fruit crumble. Planning and preparing a meal makes such a difference. People start to look forward to food again, rather than regarding it as a chore. Often carer and client share a meal or snack together and that time is priceless. Self-esteem and wellbeing soars. Food is enjoyed when it’s the focus of a visit.
How do you connect with someone who is living with dementia, or who might be resistant to ‘interference’?
A person diagnosed with dementia may have no obvious interest in food but if you ask the home cook where the cheese grater is, they often know exactly where to find it – it’s about sequence and memory. Our carers are experienced in finding different ways to start the conversation. To share that connection with someone for whom it's difficult can feel miraculous.
One woman had apple trees in her garden. She was very troubled by them, since her husband had always treasured the crop and she loathed waste. We walked through her trees and collected the apples but with no one around to eat them, we stewed them and we juiced them, using her utensils. She was very proud to use the liquidiser that hadn’t been taken out for 10 years and it felt like the most natural thing in the world. It was what she wanted to do; we just helped her.
Where did you meet Jane Clarke?
I met Jane at an event with Unforgettable.org and began following Nourish by Jane Clarke on social media and looking at the website. We often use Nourish recipes when we are cooking with clients, and I found Jane’s video and blog on low-residue foods really helpful when we were supporting a client after surgery. We show the client and let them get inspired.
I have also used the Nourish by Jane Clarke Facebook Community to ask questions about things that have bothered us when we see clients over relying on certain foods groups. We got great information about tinned foods and the nourishment values of pre-prepared meals. We talk about the responses we are given and let the client decide what they’d like to do. I’m pleased to say all the clients that use us for mealtimes love the food and rally well. Frail appetites do recover and because of Jane, we could show that a low-residue diet could still be tasty and that we could help make mealtimes feel special.
What tips would you give to families supporting loved ones?
It’s important to acknowledge that lives and routines often revolved around food. When food is ‘provided’ and food decision-making is taken away, apathy and lack of purpose can soon set in.
We had a couple who would walk arm in arm to the village butcher once a week. When the husband was no longer able to do that, our carer walked with his wife, so she could still shop locally and our carer helped her cook her husband’s meal every day. After his death our carer kept the food routines going.
Another client was a widower who had never cooked. His family brought him a microwave and ready meals but they went against the grain and depressed him. We go in and cook the dishes he loves, like liver and bacon. He loves the smell of real food cooking!
Is the aroma and anticipation of food as important as the meal itself?
Yes, absolutely. We may work with a client who is living with dementia and their gas and electric stove is turned off for safety reasons. But slow cookers are a good alternative. The best bit is to smell it cooking. It helps to prompt memories and tempts the appetite.
Are there any Nourish recipes that are particular favourites with your clients?
Clients seem to be in tune with the seasons and families worry about mealtimes more as it gets colder. A standout recipe has been the Mushroom Soup with Crusty Croutons. Jane had talked about the nourishment values of mushrooms and the soup recipe appealed to our client, so mushrooms and Greek yoghurt went on the shopping list.
'I want to produce lasting change for people living with dementia'
'There's plenty of life to be lived with dementia and I want to play my part'