Norfolk pensioners show care homes can be dignified

A new film by TopBox Media, aims to show that moving into a care home does not have to mean losing a tight grip of your dignity, as Victoria Leggett found out when she met its very dignified stars.

Nipping out for a wander round the park, eating a beetroot sandwich whenever you fancy one and not having your underwear mixed up with someone else's.

For five Norfolk pensioners, that is what dignity in old age means to them.

Now they have made their screen debuts to star in a short film and explain how respect, independence, privacy and happiness are key to maintaining it.

For many, those terms are not often associated with care homes which more readily evoke images of communal living spaces and a heavy reliance on a series of helpers.

But that is something the DVD's stars – who appear alongside fellow residents and workers at the four care homes where they live – hope to change.

Called I Am, the Norfolk County Council film visits the old people at Rosemeadow in North Walsham, Philadelphia House in Norwich, St Edmund's at Attleborough, and Rebecca Court in Heacham, to give an insight into their experiences.

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From choosing when to go to bed and when to eat to holding regular residents' forums, it shows life at the homes through the eyes of Geoff Ward, Rita Dolby, Doug Lee, Gwen Buckle and Pam Renew.

Vicky Cowap, quality improvement manager at the council, said the film was a true reflection of the residents' experience. She said: 'We very much wanted them to lead it. It's totally unscripted.'

About 100 hours of footage was shot and condensed into the 16-minute film which was premiered in front of its stars at the George Hotel in Swaffham yesterday.

It will now be used to train future carers to stress to them the importance of helping maintain the residents' self-respect in a setting that is rarely considered dignified.

Care assistant Rebecca Aldiss, who works at Philadelphia House in Norwich, said it was important to show people how much care homes had changed in the past two decades.

She said: 'I would never ever put my parents into a care home with how they were 20 years ago. I was shocked. It's amazing how much it has changed for the better. Individuals are treated as individuals.'

The film will also be used to reassure people facing the prospect of moving into residential care.

Mrs Cowap said many people feared their independence would be the first thing to go when moving to a care home.

'You think you are going to lose your individuality,' she said. 'What we wanted to do with the film is show you can still live a good life, albeit in a care home.'

Joan Thompson, who also features in the film, said it would have worked for her. She moved to Rebecca Court in Heacham three years ago after a breakdown.

The 69-year-old said: 'I think it shows how independent people could be. It will take away the fears. I do just as I like.'

The film has been produced by the county council, which runs 26 residential care homes and 13 housing-with-care units in Norfolk, including those featured in the film.

It was funded by at �10,000 grant from the Department of Health's Dignity in Care campaign.

Gwen Buckle moved to St Edmund's care home in Attleborough three years ago after a stroke left her in need of extra help.

She said dignity, for her, meant still being treated as an individual by her carers and maintaining her own space.

'My room is my home and they respect that,' the 90-year-old mother-of-two and grandmother-of-four said. 'That's the way I like it. I'm home once I close that door - I feel safe.'

In I Am she talks about a time when the catering staff at St Edmund's rustled her up a beetroot sandwich when there was nothing on the tea trolley she wanted.

'I thought so much of that,' said Mrs Buckle, who lived in Old Buckenham before moving to St Edmund's. 'It's only a small thing but to me, to be given something I fancied just like that, it was wonderful. It made me feel on top of the world.'

Rita Dolby said knowing she would be listened to by staff at Rosemeadow care home in North Walsham was incredibly important.

The 87-year-old, who is a former school secretary, said: 'They are anxious that you should have what you want. We have residents' meeting and the things mentioned, very often, are implemented within a couple of days.'

Mrs Dolby, a mother-of-one, moved from her North Walsham home to Rosemeadow after operations on her hips. She said she found it difficult at first but always knew the staff had her best interests at heart and worked hard to ensure she maintained her independence.

'It was important for me to walk - they made me walk and I didn't want to. But it was the right thing to do,' she said.

Geoff Ward, who moved to Rosemeadow this year after suffering a stroke in January 2005, said life in the care home was what he made it.

'I get to do the things I like, when I like,' he said.

The 72-year-old admitted there had been instances when he felt his dignity had been affected by living there.

One day he walked into his room and found his washing had been mixed up with somebody else's but after raising it with his carers it was quickly dealt with.

'Getting somebody else's underwear back is completely undignified - it's wrong, isn't it? You don't want to put somebody else's pants on,' said the father-of-two and grandfather-of-four.

'I suggested laundry bags and that's going to happen. That's solved the problem.'

Doug Lee's starring role in I Am sees exploring Waterloo Park with care assistant Rebecca Aldis.

The 90-year-old has been at Philadelphia House in Norwich for just over a year and said the film reflects life in a care home perfectly.

'I'm not restricted in anyway,' he said. 'I do as I like to a certain extent and I can't praise the carers enough. I didn't think there were people like that.

'Since I have been here, I have never wanted for anything and, within reason, what I have asked for I have got.'

The father-of-one, who lived in Bowthorpe with one of his grand-daughters before moving to Philadelphia House, admitted he had not expected to maintain as much as independence as he had.

Pam Renew, 91, said maintaining her dignity meant keeping her independence, which was something carers at Rebecca Court in Heacham allowed her to do.

'I have my own room and I can lock my own door at night,' she said. 'I have got a key and the carers have got a key to get in. It's given me a lot of independence that I probably wouldn't have had.

'To be able to do things for myself I feel is very important. I don't like asking for help. If I can help it, I prefer to do it for myself.'

I Am stresses the importance of happiness when it comes to dignity in old age and Mrs Renew, who has lived in Heacham since retiring to Norfolk from London in 1982, said she was 'perfectly happy' in her care home.

'Dignity means respect, independence and, well, just general happiness,' she added.