Karen volunteers as an Adventure Supporter for Dementia Adventure. We spoke to Karen about her experiences, and the positive impact volunteering has had on her life.
“I’ve volunteered on three walking holidays in the Lake District. I usually buddy up and build a rapport with a particular couple so I can support the person who has come as a carer and they get a rest. I also support the holiday leader and do whatever’s needed to make the holiday run smoothly. I just love volunteering with Dementia Adventure and after two years of the pandemic, I can’t wait to get back to it!”
How does volunteering fit with your job?
“I can’t fit volunteering in regularly, but this really works for me. I take leave and can commit myself for a week.
I have worked in residential care with older adults and as a community social worker helping families living with dementia. I have a desk job in adult social care policy these days, and I miss that face-to-face connection with people and being able to have an immediate impact. Volunteering helps keep me grounded about the reality of living with dementia and I can apply what I learn to my job. I get to understand the day-to-day lives of people who will use our services. I get good feedback and it’s reassuring to know I can still use empathy, listening, and compassion – people skills I don’t use so much in my current job.”
Do you feel you’ve learned much about dementia?
“Yes, it’s greatly increased my understanding of living with dementia. When doing a very active holiday, it becomes obvious how differently people are affected by dementia. People immediately think of memory problems, but it can affect spatial awareness or ability to follow instructions.”
You’ve described the benefits to your work, are there benefits to you personally?
“Dementia Adventure is all about positivity and getting outdoors. For a week I can immerse myself in the happiness on people’s faces when they get to do the things they love. It’s almost a selfish thing, I get as much out of it as the people I’m helping. I personally love the outdoors – wild swimming, walking – and I love I can help someone else still enjoy that.
Obviously I love it – I wouldn’t take a week’s leave if I didn’t get such satisfaction from volunteering. Leaving at the end of the holiday is always really emotional – I’m a teary mess!”
How did you find the training and support you received from Dementia Adventure?
“The volunteer training is excellent. Before a holiday I always look through my handbook so I feel like I’m in the zone when I get there. There are lots of nuggets of wisdom on how to handle certain situations. For example, at the start of the holiday, being greeted by lots of strangers can be scary for people. Dementia Adventure’s communication tip about not asking lots of questions but just being warm and friendly and saying, ‘it’s really good to meet you’, has stuck in my head since the very first training session.
We’re always well briefed in advance, and are very well supported by the charity. It’s made very clear what the role is and what the expectations are. Volunteers are never expected or pressured to do anything they’re not comfortable with, and you’re never put in a position where you feel out of your depth.”
Do you have any observations about the benefits of the supported holidays?
“An important aspect of the holiday is how carers bond and give each other strength, often setting apart some time each day to swap ideas, tips or stories. It might be the first time they’ve done that. You can see how grateful carers are to get a break with us, and thankful for the strength and courage they get from it – it’s the boost they need to carry on caring when they get home. Or sometimes, the holiday brings the understanding that they’ve been struggling and need more help, which Dementia Adventure can provide, for example, their free Understanding Dementia Better training.
And the people living with dementia might all have different types and be affected differently, but they still have the ability to form new relationships, even for a few days.
Have there been any highlights in your time volunteering?
“I have so many amazing memories. One is from my most recent walking holiday in the Lakes. One of the couples, Dave and Laura*, had always been incredibly active. They particularly loved potholing and caving. Dementia had affected Dave’s spatial awareness, meaning he was too scared to pothole any longer.
As part of the holiday, we had a trip down into Honister Slate Mines. Dave was non-verbal and had been fairly withdrawn all holiday, but as soon as we got into the cave, his face lit up like a beacon. It was an environment that was so familiar to him and part of his life for so long. He just led the way. Our adventure leader kept up with him and I stayed with Laura. We were both in tears – Dave was in his natural element and he just came alive. I can’t explain the joy on his face. It was as though someone had switched the light on.”
What would you say to anyone wondering about volunteering with us?
“To anyone nervous about volunteering with Dementia Adventure, if you’re even remotely interested, just go for it, you won’t regret it. It’s a really exciting, beautiful experience. You can learn about people and yourself, have a laugh, get a lot from it and know you’re giving people an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have.”