Kate Corr visits an innovative dementia-led social club in London which improves the lives of everyone who attend – whether they have dementia or not.
I’m sitting in a circle with around 40 smiling people. It’s pouring with rain outside, but none of us care because we’re belting out ‘I’m Singing in the Rain’ with the same enthusiasm as the finest community choir. Jennifer, sitting on my right, beams with delight when she recognises the familiar tune and starts to tap her feet. I’m pretty sure that if she had the physical strength to get out of her wheelchair she’d be giving Gene Kelly a run for his money.
When we’re done, a dapper gentleman called Richard takes a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, clears his throat and starts to sing an old wartime favourite I’ll Be Seeing You. His sister Eve joins in with the harmonies, her voice has a beautiful ethereal quality, the room falls silent, we listen and blink back a few tears. It doesn’t matter that Eve can’t remember the words. We are transfixed.
Next, I eat lunch with three delightful people aged between 87 and 91. We all live locally and I’m enthralled by their stories about the area. Did I know there used to be three cinemas on the high street and that one of them was on the site of that massive, ugly DIY store? No, I didn’t. We discuss the schools they attended in the 1930s and which, by happy coincidence, my own children attended too, more than 80 years later. It’s only when our plates and bowls are being cleared away that I remember I’m here to talk to them about dementia. But that, perhaps, is the magic of this unique social club. For whilst the majority of people who come along every Wednesday may have dementia, it’s clear they all have far more to talk, laugh and sing about than the condition which binds them together.
The Lambeth Healthy Living Club isn’t a dementia care group (the word ‘service user’ is banned) and it isn’t funded by a local authority or run by a dementia charity. Nor is it simply a singing group (although singing is very popular). The club doesn’t fit into any category because, quite simply, it’s unique. As well as music-making, there’s also a regular exercise session under the watchful eye of a charismatic keep fit instructor Laurent Mendy who admits he’s ‘fallen in love’ with almost every person who attends. Then there’s dancing, poetry, quizzes, flower-arranging, arts and crafts, food-tasting, drama workshops, percussion groups and any other activity that might make life worth living.
This vibrant community is special, not only because of what it does, but because of how it has survived. Four years ago the club which began life as a Healthy Ageing Café funded by the Alzheimer’s Society, was threatened with closure when funding ran out. After shedding many tears, everyone involved agreed that they would not let something as trivial as money stop them from meeting up. ‘The project had not been all that expensive and I had to try and find a way to keep it going,’ says the group co-ordinator Simona Florio. ‘I just could not let all those people, and the spirit that united us, down.’
So they continued to meet, with instructors and workshop leaders coming along as volunteers. ‘We resolved to carry on meeting because we had become a community of people that enjoyed each other’s company and we realised we didn’t need to be ‘users’ of a ‘service’ provided by someone else to carry on,’ explains Simona.
The Healthy Living Club is now a registered charity and a self-managing, thriving community which is supported by volunteers, carers, people with dementia and their families and friends. Award-winning Admiral Nurse Dave Bell is a trustee and volunteer who helps to get everyone singing. He describes the club as, ‘a paragon of how things should be run for and with people who have dementia.’
‘If there was one thing I could do to make lives better for families who were coping with dementia, it would be to replicate the energy and the sense of belonging that we create at the Healthy Living Club for all,’ he adds. As one member of the community puts it; ‘Everyone here feels included. You don’t know if people have dementia or not.’
For more information, visit hlclc.wordpress.com