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Warm hands, Warm hearts

Updated: Jan 23, 2023

I’m always seeking out life lessons.

Last year seemed scattered with sharp shards of myself … only towards the end I started to sandpaper the edges slightly, easing the jig-sawing together of all the parts of me to listen to what the ‘whole’ of me required. One of the waves of intuition I kept receiving was that it was important for me to engage with older people, and the signs even more specifically pointed to The Heather Club; a Hemel based group offering day care two days a week to those with dementia or memory loss.

For my first official experience at The Heather Club I decided I’d like to offer a spot of nail painting to the members. On paper it seems like a silly thing perhaps, I am neither an expert, nor qualified but after a few months of struggling to muster my own self care rituals, I knew how the simple act of mindfully painting a nail and taking the time to smooth a delicately scented cream into abandoned hands could be beneficial.

With the assistance of the lovely volunteers, I was set up on a little table covered with a checked table cloth, two chairs adjacent to one another. A few nail polishes sat in a line of various pretty pastel shades. I thought of my Nannie who used to enjoy painting her nails… she had a fondness for lilacs and pretty pinks and I hoped she would approve of my choosing. Sometimes when it’s hard to know how to give, offering a service in the form of care has a feeling of cyclical rightness about it. As a group of mainly women, I can only imagine the hours they have dedicated to the well-being and comfort of husbands, children, grandchildren and then their parents later in life. A gent who has the most terrific memory can talk in detail about aspects of the war. There is an awareness to the grittiness this generation would have experienced, a feeling that they will have grafted harder and felt loss to a greater extent than any generation since.

There is a preciousness to hands that we rarely think about.

Mine are dull, dry and papery at the moment… the result of skin exposure on chilly dog walks, constant hand washing and artificial heating.

The hands I caressed on this day, however, were warm, soft and veined with stories of life.

It’s rare to touch a strangers hands. To clasp theirs in yours.

This thought occurred to me as I asked permission to take their hand, one at a time, in mine. As babies, we reach and stroke towards the faces of our parents, we claw at the floor to crawl and finger at objects of interest. We use those same hands to support us when we learn to walk and to catch us when we fall. We are lead hand in hand by our parents, an expression of love and a desire for them to keep us close and safe. An expression of the intimacy we share with a loved one; that they are ours. An indication to the outer world to that link of love. Hands are the propeller driving us forward as we walk and navigate life. They accelerate us as we push through the water to swim and advance on our journeys. As the years creep by, our senses- sight, smell, sound, even taste, can begin to weaken. Touch remains. And with that- tenderness.

Tenderness through touch is not something easily forgotten- a barometer of care and empathy.

Caressing the cream around fingers of gold rings, some with bright green stones in an art deco setting would prompt me to ask about partners and where they were married- their grown up children, family and their pets. A lady commented that I was making her think about things she hadn’t thought about for a long time. One lady talked joyfully about the war, of how she’d had a lovely life and how she doted on her Father. Many were apologetic for the state of their hands- all I could see was the life they’d held, the care they had given. What was evident was how well they remembered the past but not so much about the intricacies of where they lived now, beyond the realm of Hemel Hempstead. It seemed the past was talked about in technicolour, with warmth and a slight melancholy. Nail painting creates a physical closeness which means nothing much can be hidden.

Usually I note my keenness to fill quiet moments with my voice or opinion to stave off the awkwardness of nothingness, but there were moments in between where we would just sit and watch the pops of colour emerge on hands and smile.

A quieter lady who spoke of problems with her eyes, looked off to the distance momentarily and I thought she was going to cry. I asked if she was ok and asked her to tell me what she was thinking about. We sat for a while with the excuse of allowing the nails to dry. I encouraged her to flutter her fingers a little while I fanned them with my hand. In that ‘drying time’ we explored the subject of dance. Suddenly she came to life a little… a liveliness in her upper body, her shoulders wiggling. I could sense a longing for her legs to contribute as willingly to her enthusiasm. It lifted the moment and lifted me. We spoke briefly of ‘Strictly’ at the weekend, her favourite dance- the quick step and she talked me through the counting for the cha cha cha, maintaining eye contact to ensure I was listening.

The experience of spending time here felt like such a privilege. I enjoyed listening. Some of the ladies who seemed bright and alert and full of spirit on being carefully seated, repeated a few of the same things to me… telling me where they were from and asking where I was from too. If conversing with someone my age, a friend and especially a partner, the repetition may become tiresome, indicating a lack of attention or distraction on the part of the listener but in this case, it didn’t matter. Why

should it? It helped me build an early picture of memory loss and dementia…. the way the mind randomly picks at the moments to hold onto; giving them permission to stick, compared to those which balanced tentatively with the lightness of a feather, enabling a thought to almost instantly detach and fly away.

But even though these conversations create opportunities for confusion or misunderstanding, they can still be cherished. There’s no agenda, no rush, no urgency for information. This makes the bonds that can be held across an age gap so special. There’s no comparison because our lives are so different, however above it all are loud echoes of the same lessons mirrored throughout generations and stories centred around love. I spoke to the ladies about my husband, my boys and my dog. Simple things but my world and my loves. These conversations make you think. Anything that makes you take a breath to reflect and be grateful is meaningful and potentially life changing.

It adds another layer of marvel to this generation who are so often left alone and deemed unimportant because we overlook their gems of wisdom simply because it may be delivered at a slower pace and we lack the time and therefore the patience to savour and absorb what they have to say. We admire children for their ability to seek out fun, feel joy and speak their minds… equally we can admire the elder generation, because despite the moments of confusion that dementia or even old age can bring, if they trust us enough to share, their stories are bound with ribbons of hope, grace and inspiration.

I have a feeling The Heather Club will spark a lot of joy for me this year and I’m so grateful, as I’m sure too are the members and their carers. I’m increasingly understanding that contentment and enlightenment can be found in the most unexpected of places and joy found amongst the most surprising of people.

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