Those are the words of Teresa Hemlock, the brilliant Activities Co-Ordinator for Cramer’s Court Nursing Home in Belgooly, which was chosen as the Face of Nursing Homes Ireland’s 2019 multimedia campaign.
“Nobody working as a carer is doing it for the money. You HAVE to love it,” she adds.
“Looking back, I now see that the role of carer was thrust upon me from a very early age”, Teresa explains.
“By the time I was four and a half, I was already a very accomplished child. It was no bother to me to haul my sister out over the side rails of her cot, place her on the bed and change her nappy.
“My early childhood was heavily shadowed by the fact that I had a terminally ill brother”.
He passed away from leukaemia when Teresa was only three. Her baby sister was born not long afterwards.
Her childhood helped shape her and become the person she is today. Teresa has a great insight into people’s sense of belonging and identity, something which is very important as she interacts with the residents and families she meets in Cramer’s Court Nursing Home on a daily basis.
“Losing people is normal, it happens all the time: people pass on, relationships break down. But being forced to leave your home is different. It’s part of your identity, your security,” she explains.
“Home is where you return to every night and where you navigate from. To be cut adrift is terrifying.”
When residents first come to the nursing home, Teresa encourages them to bring as much of their belongings from home as they can.
Teresa has always had this acute insight into human behaviour.
“Had I had better career advice on leaving school, I should have pursued my natural ability for psychology” she insists.
Growing up around animals was a huge advantage. She learned to read body language, to pay attention to movement, signs of distress or fear.
“93% of human communication is non-verbal”, she explains.
This innate ability to read people led her firstly into a career in hairdressing.
“Hairstylists are like priests or psychotherapists”, she says.
“We have to be very good listeners and non-judgemental.”
These finely-tuned listening skills led her naturally into volunteering with the Carrigaline Family support group working on their Rainbows programme, an activities-based initiative aimed at teenagers who were dealing with grief.
“You had to know when to shut up and let people talk,” Teresa adds.
Right now, in this pandemic-filled world, the stakes have never been higher, for Teresa and all the team at Cramer’s Court.Thankfully, they have managed to keep the Covid-19 virus out of the home.
“Families are very supportive, but the current situation is understandably so emotional and difficult for them all. And for carers,” says Teresa.
“People forget that carers grieve too. You build up a relationship with residents.”
She recently sat with a resident as he watched the livestream of his wife’s funeral.
“As her coffin left the church, he whispered ‘Goodbye, my darling’,”, recalled Teresa.
“It was heart-breaking to think of all the years they’d had together and now that was as close as he could get.”
When Teresa took on the role of Activities Co-ordinator, she poured her heart and soul into her role.
“I thought, there has to be more to their activities than just card games and bingo,” she says.
Her challenge was not only how to help residents stay connected to the life they had, but to also help them create new memories.
“Time is so important,” Teresa asserts, and she places huge emphasis on investing time in getting to know the residents and their routines.
“The biggest disconnect for them is not being able to go into the community. We had to work hard to keep them connected.”
Teresa had established a Walking Buddy System, inviting volunteers from the locale to pop in and go for walks with residents. Pre-Covid-19, they had 100 volunteers on their books. She also invited the entire first Holy Communion class from the Gaescoil in Kinsale to come in and visit, all dressed up in their finery.
Since Covid-19, all that interaction is now lost.
In 2018, within months of joining the team at Cramer’s Court, she decided if residents couldn’t go to a wedding, then they would host a wedding in the nursing home. Teresa spent months trawling charity shops for bridesmaid dresses, shoes, and hats. Staff members were enlisted to play the bride and groom, with residents playing roles of the Father of the Bride, etc.
They made a little video of how the two lovebirds met, did the catering in-house, and had the cake, photographs, flowers, and music. They even held Hen and Stag nights, complete with prosecco, and lots of craic. Family members were also invited to attend the wedding and to dress in formal attire. Donations, in lieu of presents, were made to the Irish Guide Dogs.
“Everyone bought into it. The excitement leading up to the day was tangible. It was like a real family wedding”.
Teresa’s approach has always been tailored to the individual rather than the collective. One lady, who had been a horse-rider and outdoors-lover all her life, had become agitated cooped-up in the nursing home, and Teresa decided to bring her to a horse-riding farm near Kinsale.
“We’d head off in a taxi with a bag of carrots for the horses and stay as long as she wanted.”
The interaction with the horses worked so well at relieving the lady’s agitation that Teresa had the brainwave of bringing therapy horses to visit the other residents.
“The families were so supportive,” she stresses.
Teresa invited Jill Murphy and her therapy horses down from Limerick to spend a couple of mornings with the residents.
“We are fortunate enough to have a high hand rail running all the way around the garden, like an inner paddock,” she adds.
“Residents were brought out to pat, groom, feed and talk to the horses. They absolutely loved it. You have to do things you haven’t done before to make new memories.”
Lots of activities programmes, like Sonas, focus on reminiscing about the past, which is obviously important.
However, Teresa believes it is also vitally important to create new memories.
“It is crucial to think outside the box. The bar has to rise. A higher quality of activity leads to higher quality of life for the residents”, she insists.
On the first morning of the therapy horses, one resident made an attempt to jump up on a horse. The following day, he told his son that he had been to a horse fair in Fermoy the day before and had seen a lovely horse.
“For him, this was a new memory he had created, and he was so happy,” says Teresa.
It was also the ultimate endorsement of the therapy horses project, which scooped the top prize of the Face of Nursing Homes Ireland multi-media campaign for 2019.
“The very young and the very elderly get a great kick out of each other,” she says, and it would give residents a huge emotional lift to observe kids playing outside and the busy-ness of traffic coming and going, etc. I would also love to see a proper dementia village with a fake shop, post office, hair salon, etc.
“We need people with dementia to live out that disorder. It is very unfair to make them behave in the ‘normal world’,” she concludes.
With visionaries like Teresa Hemlock leading the way, the future care for our older community is in very good hands indeed.