Living with Dementia, or caring for someone with the diagnosis, can be very lonely and isolating. But a project at the National Trust’s Wimpole Hall Home Farm aims to tackle that. Clemmie Gleeson meets some of the couples benefiting from the Farming Memories project.
For those of us with a passion for farming and the countryside, the sights, sounds and smells of a farm can be evocative of days gone by. Particularly so for those suffering with dementia, whose short-term memory may be poor, but the sensory experience of being back on a farm can help tap into older memories.
The Farming Memories project is a collaboration between the National Trust and Care Network Cambridgeshire. Set up three years ago, the group runs monthly sessions for dementia sufferers and their partner or carer to visit Wimpole Home Farm and help with simple tasks, such as feeding and grooming animals.
Retired farmer Don Leitch and wife Jenny have been members since the start. Six years ago, Don was diagnosed with dementia with Lewy bodies, which is a progressive condition affecting movement and motor control. But being back on-farm gets Don talking and energised.
Jenny says: “Farmers are not good at developing hobbies because they’re so busy. They do miss the farming.”
And Don agrees. He recalls the time he gave up farming, which felt like ‘cutting your hands off. You could not do what you used to spend all your life doing’.
Farming Memories has given the couple a safe place to go where they can meet with others who understand Don’s condition and offer support.
The group meets twice-a-month and visitors can interact with animals, help with simple tasks, such as feeding pigs or goats and grooming the Shire horses and donkeys.
During his working life, Don worked on arable, beef and sheep farms. As well as reviving memories from those times, as Don’s condition progresses, the sessions are as much about enjoying the moment too, says Jenny.
“It’s great seeing him happy,” she says. “He gets a glint in his eye. That’s more like the man I married. That’s what I miss.”
The project co-ordinator is National Trust volunteer Maureen Hershee, who saw the benefits of farm visits for her late mother who had dementia.
Maureen says: “I have volunteered at Wimpole Home Farm for many years and used to bring Mum here. She was born and bred on a farm.
“You couldn’t have a normal conversation with her, but when we came here she would start talking as soon as we turned into the drive. On the farm it was my old Mum back again; it was as if a switch had turned.
“She would remember the names of our horses going back 50-60 years and talk to the stockmen here about what she used to do on-farm.”
Seeing her mother light up with memories of her past would give Maureen a lift too. And when Care Network approached Wimpole Home Farm to ask about collaborating for a project with dementia sufferers, she was keen to be involved.
The group started with five couples attending.
Maureen says: “We need one-to-one support so the person with dementia needs to come with a partner or carer. I would like to build the group up more. It’s not just the person with dementia who benefits, but also the carers. They can talk to other people in a similar situation to themselves and they get a lot out of it too.
“With me and my fellow volunteer Lesley Howes here at the group we can interact with members, which gives their carer or partner a bit of a break.
“It is challenging, but it is also very satisfying to see the benefits for both the person with dementia and their carer.”
John and Joan Carr also enjoy being part of the group. They moved to Cambridgeshire to be near their daughter after John’s diagnosis with dementia last year. John does not have connections with farming, having spent his career in printing, but as an animal-lover he has benefited from time around livestock and horses.
And for Joan it has offered a positive experience during a bleak time.
She says: “When you first get this diagnosis you can’t stand it. You get used to it and learn how to handle it, but at first you are just lost. It’s lovely coming here.”
When invited to groom Murphy, the biggest of the farm’s seven Shire horses, John is at first reluctant, but soon settles into the task, calling it ‘very peaceful’.
As well as time on-farm with the animals, the Farming Memories group takes time to sit and chat over tea and cake, sometimes dipping into a ‘memory box’ of historical objects.
Sitting in the characterful and historic dairy building at Wimpole, the group passes around items including butter pats, recalling seeing them in use in their own homes or local shops, and talking about how dairy maids would have once made butter by hand in the same building.
Working out what the wooden ‘bird clappers’ were for, once used to scare birds away from crops, causes much head-scratching and a few giggles.
And although Maureen is a fountain of knowledge, she says she learns new things from the group at every meeting.
Wimpole is the National Trust’s only in-hand lowland farm. Of its 1,012 hectares (2,500 acres) the Trust farms 647ha (1,600 acres), of which 405ha (1,000 acres) is arable land.
The farm was given to the Trust in 1976 by Rudyard Kipling’s daughter Elsie Bambridge. It has a rich agricultural heritage and the farm’s priorities now are running a profitable arable enterprise, as well as the demonstration and visitor farm, welcoming more than 350,000 visitors a year.
And the Farming Memories members may account for just a small number of those visitors, but for the people involved, the benefits of being in safe and familiar surroundings with others who understand dementia and the challenges of caring for someone with the diagnosis, are huge.