Hope to Hope

Posted on: 22 May 2015

Playing croquet is helping Oakham School pupils connect with dementia sufferers in their local community.

Students with mallets, conversation and compassion are helping dementia sufferers cut through the fog of their illness in an imaginative programme. To mark Dementia Awareness Week, Headmaster Nigel Lashbrook explains why it is one of the most valuable activities the school offers…

How often can we truly, hand on heart, say that the work our students are doing is ‘life-changing’ or ‘astounding’?

Of course they have ample opportunities to achieve, and to exceed their academic, sporting, or artistic goals.

But to be able to really make a tangible impact on the lives of others, that is of real value. Voluntary Action (VA), as we call it at Oakham School, or Community Service as it is often known, is a crucial conduit to enable this to happen.

One of the most successful VA activities at Oakham is a scheme where pupils visit a home for the elderly and play indoor croquet with those who suffer from dementia. It has been called ‘astounding’ by the staff at the care home. The activity co-ordinator at Tixover House Care home, Elaine Elsey, says she notices the difference in the residents who take part – mentally, physically and socially.

She told me how it regularly, not just on the occasion I’ve seen it in action, makes her residents smile, that it brings them joy. Most importantly, that it can take them back to the way they used to be, before dementia took hold. Some become competitive. Others, who sometimes can’t remember the names of their family, remember how to play or who won the previous week. That is certainly what I call ‘life-changing’ – albeit for a fleeting moment.

We also talk to our students who take part – asking them what they need to be more effective in their activities. There was clear feedback, from those students who visited the elderly that they sometimes struggled to connect or find conversation.

We recognised that it would be good to find a way for them to take part in a shared activity, to give focus and shape to their visits. The ‘Through Hoops to Hope’ programme, created by the American charity JiminyWicket, ticked both boxes – at that time it was relatively new to the UK and it provided the common goal sought by our pupils.

JiminyWicket gave the pupils special training on how to play the game and how to interact with the patients. It’s an incredibly important life skill for the students to be able to learn, first hand, how to communicate and connect with people who have different needs, as well as to develop patience and understanding. All those who take part in VA learn that their simple actions make a big difference to others.

Whilst only a small group of pupils take part in the croquet activity, we have around 100 pupils (aged 15-18) engaging with the local community every week, in a wide variety of ways. As well as being a part of the curriculum for our Middle School pupils, it is also an integral part of the IB curriculum for our Upper School students. As such, we need to offer a range of activities that both resonate with the pupils, but also engage with what the community needs. As I am sure is similar in other schools across the country, we have a long history of supporting local community groups, primary schools, charity shops, as well as providing support for the elderly and disabled.

However, like everything we do at Oakham, we don’t just stand still. In addition to all these VA activities, we are constantly looking for opportunities for pupils to really be able to really engage with members of the community and to make a tangible difference to the lives of others. We try to keep up-to-date with new schemes and ask local community providers how we can be of more assistance - to keep updating our Voluntary Action provision.

Our newest initiative, offering computing lessons in conjunction with Age UK, is another example of small deeds making a tangible difference. Again, it is a shared experience, providing a focal point for the student to tangibly help and connect with others. There is already a waiting list, of both pupils wanting to take part and the elderly wanting help to access the online world!

It goes without saying that community partnerships are important. It’s a symbiotic relationship between the community you create within your school, and the community in which it is located. Of course all of the different activities that we as schools take part in are beneficial to both communities. However, given that around 800,000 people in the UK are living with dementia, and there is no cure, finding ways to improve the lives of those living with the condition are vital.

So here’s a call to all ISC Schools - contact JiminyWicket (www.jiminywicket.org) and your local care home, then arm your students with mallets, conversation and compassion - so that croquet can help permeate through the fog of dementia.

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