Volunteering at Avenue House

Maureen Armstrong writes of her experience 

Avenue House is part of a complex of three buildings catering for the needs of older people, particularly but by no means exclusively Friends. Kirwin House and Lansdowne House offer independent living, with the support of staff and facilities if needed. Avenue House offers a higher level of support, with ensuite bedrooms, a dining room for regular meals, and two large rooms for sitting and reading, watching television, and other communal activities.

It must be almost twenty years ago when Avenue House, appealed for Friends to offer companionship and entertainment to their residents. When anyone moves into a residential home it is usually because they have reduced physical capacity and few family or friends to help them manage the day to day business of life. It follows that they have fewer activities that they can enjoy without help.

As I had a large collection of music on LP, tape, and CD, initially, I offered to go along and run a “reminiscence afternoon”, playing music and encouraging memories of dance halls, concerts, and theatre visits. It did not go quite as planned. Not many people volunteered their memories, and I no doubt talked too much myself and one. One lady became very distressed, as a particular tune reminded her too painfully of her late husband.

As someone else had offered to bring in objects to stimulate memory and conversation, my visits evolved into a regular programme of music for listening. I would announce a theme, then put together a selection of music and commentary to suit.

Everyone was still encouraged to talk about their memories of particular pieces or events. This led to wonderful information about the past lives of some of these delightful people. One gentleman had been sent to the Muller orphanage with his two sisters in 1919. Their father had been gassed in the trenches, and their mother could not look after her husband and the children. The three children formed a musical trio, with him on piano and the girls singing. He said that as an economy the orphanage did not provide the girls with knickers! Another lady, who had already turned 100 and could remember the coronation of Edward VII, said she had been at school with Eric Fenby, who became amanuensis to Delius.

At first I would record the whole music programme onto a tape, but later the tape player became unreliable, and now I simply take along a pile of CDs. Once I have chosen a theme, the task is to find enough music to fill about 45 minutes, with my chat making the whole programme up to about an hour. I search my own collection, and the shelves at the Central Library. Variety is important, as some people want classical music, some prefer something lighter, and I like to discover new composers and music I have not heard before. I was delighted to find one lady was as keen as I am on early jazz, Sidney Bechet being a particular favourite.

Other Friends organise regular poetry readings at Avenue House, visit residents who have no surviving friends or relatives, accompany residents to hospital and dental appointments, and run a small “shop” selling toiletries etc.

I would encourage Friends to think about what they could offer in the way of support or entertainment at Avenue House. You will find, as I did, that you gain as much as you give.

Maureen Armstrong