“The St Hugh’s Project makes real differences to people living with or learning to live with dementia.”
These are the words of the two dementia specialists at community charity Friendship At Home, funded by St Hugh’s Hospital – and shows just how much their work matters.
For four years, we have funded Mandy Sparkes’s and Clare Mills’s positions to especially work with those experiencing the condition who use the charity’s services. Back in April, that funding was extended for another three years, meaning the pair can remain providing a vital lifeline and help improve the lives of older people in our community.
Mandy, a full-time Dementia Community Support Worker, and Clare, a part-time Dementia Aware Worker, took time out of their busy schedule to chat with St Hugh’s about what they do and why.
“I do a lot of the initial assessments,” explained Mandy, who is also a registered social worker. “When a referral comes to Friendship At Home and that person is identified as having memory concerns, it comes to me.
“I go out and see them for that initial assessment and highlight any other needs there may be. Then we look at where the referral needs to go, and this is where Clare steps in. She does a lot of the longer-term work, such as life story work and further visits. For example, someone might need further information on transport, or benefits, or social clubs, and Clare will discuss what’s available – and what’s right – with that person and the family.”
Our partnership with Friendship At Home first began in 2017.
“All this originated from St Hugh’s,” Mandy said, “so this is called The St Hugh’s Project. What we do is to prevent loneliness and isolation, as well as being a point of information and advice – we describe it as like being part of a big family.
“It’s a one-stop shop if you like. At one end of the scale, someone might ring us up asking to find a mobile hairdresser, while at the opposite end, someone might call because their husband has been diagnosed with an illness… it really does involve all sorts of services. We see all shades of life and all sorts of situations, definitely – happy and sad, of course, but knowing we are helping is so satisfying.
“Clare and I love it. Both of us say we’ve never been so settled in a job before. No two days are the same, and no two people are the same. It’s great – and that’s as much to do with the Friendship At Home team as it is the actual work. We all support each other.”
Mandy and Clare see first-hand how their work has a positive effect on the individual using Friendship At Home, but also their families, too. Much of what they do involves that person’s partner, children, grandchildren, and more.
“We cover everything, and that’s often mentioned in the feedback we get,” Mandy continued. “There are some services that, for example, only support carers, or some that only support the person with dementia; The St Hugh’s Project encompasses the whole family, even right down to members such as nieces and nephews, who often have no knowledge of dementia.
“We deliver dementia-friendly sessions to explain what’s happening and what might happen. For young family members – and even adult ones – a dementia diagnosis in a relative can be a scary and alienating thing. It’s about enabling situations where they are better able to deal with things and therefore, in turn, making things better for the individual concerned. Job satisfaction is very high!”
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the charity worked hard to adapt to changing needs in uncertain times. Mandy and Clare, supported by the Friendship At Home team overall, were a crucial lifeline to members, keeping them updated about guidance, making useful suggestions, and being that much-needed listening ear.
“It was soul-destroying, sometimes,” Mandy recalled. “We’d ring people up and they’d talk about issues or problems, and we couldn’t go – we literally had to just listen. Many found the lockdowns hard, and it has had a massive impact on people’s memories because the social stimulation that the brain needs just wasn’t there. The pandemic was a confusing and disorientating time as it is, for the majority of us… now put dementia in the mix and you can see just how important Friendship At Home is – having that mental stimulation all the time, and the activities we provide, really does keep the cogs turning. You use it or lose it.”
“We’ve adjusted the way we do things,” said Clare, who has also previously worked in social care and is currently studying social care at university. “The lockdowns were very challenging, so we did a lot of work over the telephone and virtually on tablets, with some face-to-face visits in gardens and on doorsteps. We’ve all spent a long time within our four walls… it’s great to be able to connect again on a one-to-one level.
“Now we are adapting to the ‘new normal’, if you like, we are trying to do more group work – and it’s amazing to be back in that way. We have a new group running on Thursdays, called the CST Group, which stands for Cognitive Stimulation Therapy, which is basically brain exercise. We also have the Memory Lane Choir on Tuesdays, which is very popular.”
In fact, all of the groups Friendship At Home runs are successful… from chair-based exercise and sporting memories sessions to kurling and shibashi, a simple form of tai chi – everything is designed with Friendship At Home’s members in mind.
One of the other ways we help is with the St Hugh’s triobike. Since Covid-19 restrictions eased, we’ve been out and about on our motorised bike which is specially adapted to carry two front-facing passengers – although we’ve stopped now until the warmer weather returns. We purchased this to enable Friendship At Home members who aren’t always able to get into their communities (you can see an album of photos on our Facebook page, at www.facebook.com/hmtsthughshospital.)
All these activities can’t be done without funding, and Mandy explained why that kind of support is so vital.
“The idea is that we prevent a lot of statutory service involvement,” she said. “On the costing side of things alone, what we do is saving thousands of pounds from the public purse. We try to make sure everyone has the right advice and information and the right place to go, whether that be equipment, coping strategies, and different techniques such as keeping calendars, for example, to prevent things becoming a crisis or going to statutory services that are under a lot of pressure.
“We have more than 150 members, all supported by Clare and me. The St Hugh’s Project is making a huge difference to them – and their families. Quite often we will be requested to organise a family meeting and speak to the children about what services are available. In reality, it’s many more people than just the individual who is referred; its numbers in the hundreds, without a doubt.”
Clare added: “There’s something different for members each week, and those activities are vital in terms of combatting loneliness and isolation. That can be playing or singing along to music – which has a big impact on people with dementia – or reminiscing, exercise, or a game of bingo.
“Equally, if they just want to sit there and have a chat, that’s there too. These may sound like little things, but they mean so much.”
Of course, some people who use Friendship At Home are alone, with no family or support network to turn to.
“These clubs are essential,” added Mandy, firmly. “And we must give a shout-out to the volunteers who really are the cornerstone of these activities; without them, we wouldn’t be able to do as much.”
Mandy said the beauty of what Friendship At Home offers lies in its flexibility; the member, or member’s family, can be involved as little or as much as they want.
“We can simply be a point of contact for a family – they might not even need a home visit. It can be enough,” she said, “for some to just know that we are on the end of the phone. Or it can be that we visit on a weekly basis, doing intense life story work or advance wishes, for example.”
Outside of work, Mandy and Clare – who’ve had similar career paths and have never really wanted to work in any other sector – enjoy spending time with their own young families. But the satisfaction they get from their jobs is plain to see.
“Working on The St Hugh’s Project furthers me,” said Clare. “I always strive to do more and achieve more. The people are what I really love about it – every person has a story.”
“And every day is a pleasure,” added Mandy. “Everyone is just so interesting. We don’t have the time to sit for hours and hours, but we really could, just listening. We take their stories with us.”
To find out more about the charity, volunteering opportunities, and referrals, visit www.friendshipathome.org.uk or call 01472 602500.
If you’re interested in the weekly activities offered by Friendship At Home, here’s a rundown of what’s currently on the schedule. For more information or to book, call 01472 602500.
MONDAYS: Bingo, 1pm-3pm at Humberston Country Club; Culture Club, 10am-noon at Immingham Civic Centre; Kurling, 10am-11am at St Andrew’s Methodist Church, Cleethorpes.
TUESDAYS: Shibashi, 10am-11am at Park Congregational Church Hall, Grimsby; Memory Lane Choir, 10am-noon at the Annie Chapple Centre, Cleethorpes; Tuesday Social Club, 1pm-3pm at Carr Lane Social Club.
WEDNESDAYS: Sporting Memories, 10am-noon at Youngs Bar, Blundell Park football stadium; Wednesday Social Club, 10am-noon at the Annie Chapple Centre, Cleethorpes.
THURSDAYS: Thursday Social Club, 10am-noon at Carr Lane Social Club; CST (Cognitive Stimulation Therapy) Group, 10am-noon at Park Congregational Church Hall, Grimsby.
FRIDAYS: Chair-based exercise, time TBC at the Annie Chapple Centre, Cleethorpes.