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Friends who light up lives of people with dementia

yopey beth (1935580)
yopey beth (1935580)

A tea party is in full swing. Sausage rolls and cakes are handed round. Laughter and singing echo through the room.

Around the table are a group of care home residents who all have dementia.

With them are their special friends - 17 year-old sixth formers from a nearby school.

They are part of a befriending scheme run by YOPEY, a charity that enables, promotes and celebrates community work by young people.

It stands for Young People of the Year and was founded by journalist Tony Gearing who lives in Stradishall who runs the charity with his wife, Jo.

He wanted to redress the balance of negative publicity and shine a light on all the good things young people were doing.

yopey isabel (1935582)
yopey isabel (1935582)

Since then he has widened its scope to include YOPEY Befrienders, running projects with schools and care homes.

His work for young people was recognised with an MBE in last year's Queen's Birthday Honours.

Tony, who is a trained Dementia Champion, said: "This generation we are training are going to see more dementia than any before them.

"Many more people will live to 100 and one in three could have dementia by the time they are 80.

"The skills we are giving them now will stand them in so much better stead than the current generation who are now dealing with parents with dementia.

"It teaches them patience. It absolutely works both ways. The young people will benefit for the whole of their lives.

"We are taking the fear out. The dementia diseases are horrible but life isn't over when it happens."

The befrienders at the tea party are part of a link up between Mellish House care home in Great Cornard and the village's Thomas Gainsborough Academy.

Tony said they were doing a really challenging form of befriending. "Sometimes they may see behaviours that could upset them.

"Our training takes them beyond Dementia Friends and tells them what you can expect to see, and puts some safeguarding in place.

"They form deep friendships with residents, but also see them when they are sad.

"We teach them how to cope, and not contradict, when a very elderly person says, for instance, that their mum is coming to collect them."

yopey haverhilll (1935584)
yopey haverhilll (1935584)

Mellish House befriender Izzy Robinson said: "We've been doing this since January when were were trained at the home by Tony.

"We got to see what dementia was really like instead of the stereotypes.

"The first lady I befriended was Freda. She loves poetry and so do I. I'm doing it for English Literature, studying poems about conflict.

"There is a book here of Britain's most-loved poems and she can recite a lot of them off by heart. Her favourite is The Owl and the Pussycat."

Izzy, who lives in Sudbury, now spends time with other residents as well, "I've got to know them so personally.

"Most people, when you say someone has dementia, that's all they see but we learn that's not all there is.

"My friend Maureen has always loved going out for walks and she used to walk her dog on the meadows, like I do.

"Befriending is something I'd thought about doing because I have a friend who is part of a scheme at another home.

"He made a true friend there, and I thought I would like to do something like that."

Izzy says she will carry on coming to see her friends at the home during the holidays.

"The school work stops but here doesn't stop. I'm hoping I can carry on next year as well even though I'll be doing my A levels.

"I feel a true friend wouldn't turn their back on them because of exams, and I hope that's what I am to them."

yopey mildenhall (1935586)
yopey mildenhall (1935586)

Teia Yale was thinking of her own grandmother when she first volunteered for the scheme.

"My grandma lives alone in Haverhill. I visit her, but it made me think about people who are on their own, and don't see people from outside.

"I hope that if she was ever in a home she might get a befriender going to see her.

"It makes me happy that I can make other people happy by visiting.

"I used to think people with dementia were quite difficult and it wasn't until I did the training that I realised I misunderstood them.

"The example given was if you were outside a shop, and there was a black rug in the doorway, someone with dementia might see it as a hole and be afraid to walk over it.

"At Mellish House I always visit a lady called Eileen. She gets really excited to see me.

"I find I don't have to talk much as she talks to me - I don't often have to prompt her.

"It feels as if I've done something for the community as well as for her personally.

"I would 100 percent recommend other people to get involved in befriending.

"Our friends have a lot of knowledge and advice they can pass on to us. Eileen always tells me about looking out for others, and being kind.

"I'm hoping to carry on visiting until I go to university in 2019, and I'd like to do something similar there as well," said Teia who plans to study law and become a barrister.

It is not only the residents who get a lot from the visits. The young people are well aware they benefit too.

Students from Thomas Gainsborough School are befrienders at Hellish House Care HomePICTURE: Mecha Morton (1936705)
Students from Thomas Gainsborough School are befrienders at Hellish House Care HomePICTURE: Mecha Morton (1936705)

Beth Gerrish says one of the reasons she volunteered was because she thought it would build up her confidence around people.

"The first time it was difficult for me because it was so new, but in a little while it became normal to me," she said.

Grace is one of the residents she visits regularly and they chat non-stop about Grace's past life which includes extensive travels.

Beth believes befriending really helps people to understand dementia.

"If you see someone having difficulties on the street this gives you confidence to go and help if you can, where some people would shy away.

"It builds you as a person and helps your confidence. It really opens your eyes.

"I think it's easy for my generation to overlook older people.

"People have such interesting stories to tell and need someone to sit and listen. You learn about the person underneath."

It has also changed her perception that care homes are sad places. "This is bright, happy, and light," she said.

Theresa Pleasants, activities co-ordinator at Mellish House says befrienders have made real bonds with residents.

YOPEY's current befriending schemes include Mildenhall, Norfolk, Nottingham and Poole in Dorset. The charity funds them by applying for grants.

A project with St Benedict's Catholic Upper School and St Peter's House care home in Bury has just been completed.

The school's chaplaincy co-ordinator Matt Spiller said they had a huge response from students interested in taking part.

"It is perfectly inside our ethos of wanting to be effective Christians in the world and be a caring part of the community," he said.

"Part of what really attracted our young people is that Tony himself is an advocate for young people.

"I think they were all nervous at first. We went into the home for a training session, and it was such a nice environment that I think most of them were shocked at how simple it was.

"They went in and enjoyed themselves - their expectations were exceeded by the home and their experience."

Isabel Masetti was one of the sixth formers who got to know residents at St Peter's House.

"I had never really done anything like it before and thought it was a really good opportunity," she said.

"It combats the stereotype of young people not giving back to the community, and connects you with other people.

"We were trained up really well. Tony made sure we knew what we had to do.

"At first we went round and chatted to everybody, then began to make friends with people.

"My special friend really appreciated it and so did her family. It took a while to get to know her and find out the things she liked. After that it was quite easy to chat to her.

"It was a really rewarding experience and has definitely made me more aware, knowing how to approach and talk to people."

Beth Johnson, who took part in a befriending scheme at Bury's County Upper School, raised £320 for YOPEY by holding a cake sale at her grandmother's pub in Bury.

Mildenhall College Academy's head of sixth form Katie Sanders-Pope said: "I loved the idea of befrienders having had relatives of my own in care homes.

"I liked the principle behind it of getting young people involved and giving elderly people someone else to talk to.

"The students give back to the community and broaden their horizons by thinking about people other than themselves.

"It encourages compassion and kindness and being interested in someone else's life."

The school has linked up with Mildenhall Lodge care home. The befrienders visit once a week for about an hour.

"It helps develop their communication ability, and gives them experience of a completely different generation," said Katie.

Meanwhile, in Haverhill, pupils at Burton End Primary Academy are getting ready to be YOPEY's youngest-ever befrienders.

Almost 60 of them aged nine and 10 have already received some training from Tony. "The response was so positive we decided to take it further," said headteacher Karen Sheargold.

The school approached The Meadows home in Haverhill and Karen plans to take some children there at half term.

"They will go in and chat, and take part in activities like art and music.

"It will be invaluable for them and they will benefit so much.

"Quite a few of our children have already had experience of dementia with grandparents or great-grandparents, and they have been able to talk about how difficult it has been to support them."

Talking to the home's residents will also be a huge benefit in an age dominated by social media, Karen says.

"Social media can be so isolating. It's nice for them to have face to face contact with people, and have social responsibility.

"And it helps them to understand that contact isn't always easy, either, and to have patience to understand that people with dementia or learning disabilities won't be able to chat in the same way as their friends.

"They will learn to respect this and not be frightened by it. I also learned a lot."