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Stories from a hospital volunteer - Taking Risks Part 2

Greenthorn profile image
38 Replies

The following week Lucy and I returned to the same hospital bay where Louise, the former concert pianist was resident. Louise was in a bed by the window. My colleague, Lucy, was working with a patient diagonally opposite from her whereas I was directly opposite her with a very demure elderly patient. My thinking was that I could observe Louise from where I stood, without her really noticing me.

Louise was sitting up in bed with a fixed glazed look in her eyes. I had been told by a nurse that she was blind in one eye, but by the way Louise stared out, I could easily believe she was blind in both eyes. I began speaking quietly with my patient, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. I had no intention of going across to Louise – it would be like putting my head in the lion’s den, for Louise was still shouting out aggressively.

The two nurses on duty were not really making any response to Louise’s calls. I can only presume they knew her well enough to avoid her; knowing they weren’t able to give Louise what she wanted. All Louise wanted was to get out, or have some logical explanation given as to where she was, and why she was there. But logic goes out of the window for people living with dementia. I presume the nurses were simply exhausted with Louise’s constant calls for attention.

But I had an idea in my head, a kind of light bulb moment. . I decided to play birdsong on my Bluetooth speaker. I wanted to test whether Louise would notice, or be in any way affected by the sound of birdsong. Spotify has many examples of garden and woodland birds – and Spring is almost here, it was not out of season. Many people like the ‘dawn chorus’ or just a blackbird fluting away. You can almost get any sound from the Spotify database: whale, owl, dog, pig. You name it and Spotify will have something. I have played seaside sounds, bugle, church bells, running water and even a butler's bell. One guy once asked for the sounds of the seaside but to exclude any squawking of seagulls! Perhaps he had his fish and chips pinched! Anyway, I digress.

As I said, I was curious if I were to play the birdsong, whether Louise might show any kind of response. At the time I switched the birdsong on, Lucy was outside the bay, and later told me she had heard the bird song but wondered how on earth a bird had managed to get into the hospital. After all, we were on the 10th floor and the windows are sealed. It wasn’t that I was playing the birdsong loudly, just enough for it to be in the background.

But would you believe it? As soon as I began playing the birdsong so Louise stopped shouting. It was as if time had stopped still. A ‘moment between moments’ (as a friend of mine used to say.) I was thinking Louise would suddenly shout out again but no. Seconds passed; half a minute passed and still Louise was silent. I wondered what was in her mind. And how long could this magic last? - There we were on the 10th floor of a London hospital with the chirping of birdsong. It felt like paradise.

As soon as Lucy returned to the bay I beckoned her to come to me where I was standing. The birdsong was still playing but I had decided to push this situation further. I whispered to Lucy that I would initiate a conversation with her about gardens! So, I began saying to Lucy, “Lucy, do you have a garden?” Lucy answered yes .We had a couple more exchanges when I asked Lucy how large her garden was. Lucy replied quite proudly, “Oh its big, about 140 feet long.” To our total surprise, Louise, sitting in the bed opposite us said, “You lucky thing!” Wow. she had been listening to us!

Lucy began to describe some flowers and grasses in her garden. She was still in conversation with me. (We were not directing any of this to Louise.) I told Lucy that in the Spring of each year, a robin usually visits my garden, just for a few minutes, and then flies off. Louise opposite piped up in response,” A robin visits me too; I think it’s a friend of mine who died some years ago.” I think Lucy said, “Yes I have heard that robins do that.”

I remember that Louise saying she was lonely. I responded by saying that I also live alone but that I put different pictures up around the house to remind me of things, people, or holidays. Louise said that she does that as well. It occurred to me that Louise might well have thought that she was sitting in her garden and that two neighbours were passing by her garden gate. That she was listening to our conversation, and then joined in, totally distracted from the reality that she was in hospital. When it was time for Lis and I to move to the next bay, we each said goodbye to Louise. Louise asked if I would pray for her. I said I gladly would.

Lucy and I related this account to our manager. He was so impressed, suggesting he film us both recalling the two meetings we had with Louise; how, despite a bad first engagement, we had thought outside the box to allow this patient to participate in an ordinary conversation. Two weeks later Lucy and I were filmed in one take, sitting in comfy armchairs recalling our two sessions with Louise. We felt so natural and comfortable in recollecting the story. The film (8 mins long) will be embedded into a training programme on dementia, as well as demonstrating how a patient’s immediate environment or mindset might be changed to facilitate their wellbeing.

We have yet to see this film, but I know we delivered the goods! And putting on the birdsong was indeed a risk worth taking.

38 Replies
slram profile image


Katinka46 profile image

Wonderful. Beneath every outward sign of dementia there is a real, vulnerable human being. Thank you so much for giving us this.

Kate xxx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Katinka46


sassy59 profile image

That’s remarkable David, a mini miracle of sorts. Such a simple thing that helped Louise forget where she was and be transported somewhere better. The birdsong was genius and clearly drew Louise into your conversation with Lucy. Thank you for the story and you’re right, I do like it.

The film will be very useful I’m sure. Xxx❤️

Izb1 profile image
Izb1 in reply to sassy59

Hope Pete is feeling ok Carole and that you got the antivirals in time x

sassy59 profile image
sassy59 in reply to Izb1

Pete’s not too bad thank you Irene. He has a chest infection so will be getting antibiotics soon. Antivirals did seem to help him.

Take care xxx❤️

Izb1 profile image
Izb1 in reply to sassy59

Glad the antivirals helped Carole and am sure the antibiotics will sort him out. I hope you are feeling ok too, it can't be easy if you have this as well x

sassy59 profile image
sassy59 in reply to Izb1

I’m testing negative thank goodness and doing much better. Keeping fingers crossed for Pete. Xxx❤️

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to sassy59

Thanks Carole. I think I should use the birdsong far more often. Its not intrusive at all and as my colleague Lucy says "we bring a little bit of outside, inside!" 😊

Morrison10 profile image

Amazing, sure you feel pleased and proud. Well done. Jean x

garshe profile image

What a lovely ending. My Mum was staying with me for a week and she had Alzeimers. One afternoon we were sitting having a cup of tea and I started a conversation about the neighbours in the street I was brought up in.

In those days the ladies would come out in the evenings and sit on their windowsill and chat across to one another.

My Mum named everyone in the street and related stories about the conversations they had . It was a wonderful time and I remembered most of the times she mentioned , I had my Mum back.

I put her to bed feeling really happy and Positive. . Unfortunately the following morning she remembered nothing and was back in her old World.

This was almost 30yrs ago and I still treasure that day when I had my My Mum back if only for a few hours. Take care and cherish the good days. xxSheila 💕⚘

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to garshe

What a wonderful story Sheila, so thanks for sharing! ❤️

garshe profile image
garshe in reply to Greenthorn

Yes wonderful memory xx💕⚘🙏👍

Morrison10 profile image
Morrison10 in reply to garshe

glad that you had great few hours with your Mom, lovely memories. Jean x

garshe profile image
garshe in reply to Morrison10

Yes Jean, I will never forget those few hours. After that My lovely Mum didn't know who I was again. It is such a dreadful disease , hopefully one day they will find a cure

Its like losing someone but they're still here. I lost my Mum many years before she passed.

Have a lovely day, cherish every second.

Seeing the photo of Paul O'Grady taken only a few hours before he passed , you can never take anything for granted and should be grateful for every second.

Lots of love xx Sheila ⚘💕👍

coughee profile image

Well done Greenthorn👏 your thinking outside of the box bought some respite for Louise, the others on the ward and nursing staff.

To use your experiences in a training video is wonderful. Dementia is a very misunderstood and frustrating disease for everyone involved.

You do an excellent job Greenthorn, Thank you for all you do and giving us the stories of your visits.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to coughee

Thanks Coughee, my manager worked in two care homes as has the most odd and wonderful stories about dementia patients. One man in his eighties believed he was 16 years of age. When told his son was coming to visit him he said "that can't be possible as I'm only 16 years." But when his son did arrive, although his father was unable to recognise his son, he did have an emotional connection with him, a kind of bond, which drew them together. The lesson was/is that emotional memory is far more lasting than factual memory as regards dementia. I will continue sharing the stories!

Lilylung profile image

What a wonderful story ,your doing such a worthwhile job, well done ,thank you for sharing and I hope Louise found a little peace.xx

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Lilylung

Yes Louise (not her real name) has now been discharged. But we often see patients return from time to time so we may well see her again.

Izb1 profile image

Thank you David, I not only enjoyed reading this but feel that the breakthough you made with Louise was another tool they can use in dementia, just like the grandson who took his grandad into the car singing where he remembered every word of the song. You do a fabulous job, well done x

Morrison10 profile image

Though my mother lived to 111, she was ok, but at some of day centres she went to their were people with dementia etc. Would try have conversations with them, and said to me hoped she never became like that. She was still ok when put on Liverpool Care Plan following slight fall. Disgraceful.

helenlw7 profile image

Wow, that’s an amazing story, the way you found the way through to Louise by birdsong. Dementia is horrible disease. My parents in law both had it, and my husband is now in the early stages.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to helenlw7

Helenlw7 - I'm so sorry your husband is living with early stages. We say "living with" since it gives a positive perspective rather than saying "suffering with". In truth its more the relatives and loved ones that "suffer" with it. But we are trained to say "living with dementia" since we know that so much can be done to bring some quality of life, to bring special moments or to create different scenarios. I know that music is a key to unlocking memories of past times. I have discovered many old songs I never know existed. Very often a patient will move his or her lips along with the song lyrics. Very often a smile emerges. We are trained to discover the patients old hobbies or what their job was and where we can to bring activities to the bedside.

helenlw7 profile image
helenlw7 in reply to Greenthorn

Living with it is definitely true. So far we our lives are little changed from before, apart from his memory loss, but I know from seeing his mum and dad going through dementia I know there is much worse to come, so we’re trying to create happy memories now.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to helenlw7


Mavary profile image

My Father was in a care Home with dementia. He lived on his own and had got too poorly to be cared for at home. I went in to see him one night while the carers were busy putting people to bed. There was a lady there very much like Louise. She had been shouting and using abusive language. She said she didn’t like where she was and wanted to go back to The Cyder Barn which was where she was. My Father even told her to shut up. As you know for someone with dementia that is a no no. She continued shouting and using abuse so I quietly said to her. Were you in the airforce by any chance. I just guessed she had been. Yes! She said. I was a secretary to the Sergeant Major. I said I thought you were I said I bet you looked nice in your uniform. We chatted like that until the carer came down. She mouthed thank you to me. Dementia is a horrible confusing disease. The person you used to know changes. Although I can say for my Father he was still the sweet Father I knew. He always knew his Children. He didn’t know where he lived. I had told him it was a convalescent home. He stayed in one when he had pneumonia when us Children were young. If he knew it was a home he would have been awful to deal with. I told the care home staff and my Sisters to never say. He was quite content being cared for. He couldn’t live at home anymore. He would say he doesn’t live there and was off. He did it once when I had gone away for the day. There was no way I could get back to stop hopim. Goodness knows where he would end up to. I rang my Sister and she went down and hid his shoes. She said he was still like it when she go there. It was an good hours drive and when I got home and we had set off straight away I went to see him. We played cards most evenings and that kept him settled.

It’s scary when you have someone you love who has dementia.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Mavary

Thanks Mavary for such an interesting reply. There are ways we can 'present' news and for your father to believe he was in a convalescent home was quite a masterstroke on your part. Same care, same armchairs and comforts , but different label. My own mother had Alzheimers. Sometimes when at home she would say she needed to go home, not recognising where she was. So I used to take her out the house and walk her round the block, alongside a park, and once circled would return to the house when all was well! As for hiding his shoes, that's clever thinking, though knowing my mother, she may well have left the house without them, had she been that determined. Thankfully I never put that to the test. I used to pride myself on knowing where she had put everything and boasted to her once that I knew where all her hidden belongings were. She retorted, "Do you know where my gun is?' Yeah, she was smart as well ha ha.

Morrison10 profile image
Morrison10 in reply to Greenthorn

wow, your mother might have had a problem, but the question. “Do you know where my gun is” must have surprised you, expect it left you speechless ! Not sure I could answer. Jean

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Morrison10

Jean, i loved her response. I then knew she could be sharp as a razor and funny with it!

Mavary profile image
Mavary in reply to Greenthorn

Ha ha! Clever lady. I wouldn’t have liked to walk out with my Father. His legs weren’t that good. Until he became so weak we would take him out once a week for dinner.

In the end he had a couple of falls. They wouldn’t find him anywhere in a care hope. He was beginning to hurt himself when falling. What with that and him wanting to wander off it was a scary time for us. He went into hospital and my Sisters and I all said we weren’t going to look after him any more. And we said we would hold them responsible if anything happened to him. I only have a one bedroom apartment so there was no way I could have him. My Sister who lived away couldn’t have him as she was in the same position. The other one wouldn’t anyway.

Well they found him a place where I wanted him to go. He was put in a room quite near to where they could watch him. I’m just thankful they had the doors locked. There was one night so the carers said that she was doing some paperwork. He walked down the slope to where she was working and said turn that B light off. He was an air raid warden in the war. I think his mind had wandered back to then. I just thought it was so funny. I loved my Dad and just wanted what was right for him. Of course we wouldn’t have deserted him but it got them to find him somewhere. He was ok in there.

Souielouie profile image

amazing 😊 what a break through into a troubled mind 🥰

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Souielouie

Indeed. It was a revelation when she interrupted out conversation. And once we had "hooked" her in, we played it out as far as we could!

Jaybird19 profile image

thank you for telling us that. It was such a brilliant idea . Now what can i do when my sister phones me because she is told to, but has nothing to say . cannot finish the sentence so today i just talked my self and tried to get her to tell me of the cruise she had just been on but it didnt happen. I had a small a small response to my talking about the ship i had been on

--- ----saga years ago which always had a large , a giant jigsaw set up in sitting area and how they replaced it when finished and there was always someone passing by tempted to put a piece in place , and then to this she responded and we had a conversation about a ships library and other things.

. Again little things that strike a memory chord.

I have a RSPB bird song record . Will go and put it on for my pleasure of things lost, though I did hear a thrush singing here yesterday.

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Jaybird19

I haven't yet heard the blackbird fluting away and i think I read there are not so many about this year.(But why would that be?) Anyway, thanks for your response Jaybird. Keep working at it from all angles!

Stratos20 profile image

You really have a knack of knowing what is needed. Excellent. Well done Greenthorn 😊

Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Stratos20

Thanks Stratos. Much of the time I do things spontaneously and that's the fun of it. We try!

Ergendl profile image


Greenthorn profile image
Greenthorn in reply to Ergendl


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