Derek Dunham

Recently, Robert Speker, the activities coordinator at Sydmar Lodge in Edgware, North London, UK, spoke to Varsity about his acclaimed project of working with residents to recreate iconic album covers. Although this idea has caught fire on social media with over 11 million views, captured the attention of think tanks, and been referenced in professional care articles, it’s far from the only thing that Robert does to inspire residents. He takes them to rock concerts, throws special celebrations, and is constantly thinking of new ways to add excitement to their lives. To see Robert’s latest photos and keep up to date with his creative projects, follow him on Twitter: @RobertSpeker.

Below, Robert provides some advice for communities that want to keep residents engaged during coronavirus and beyond.

How has COVID-19 impacted your community?

Care homes are in quite a unique situation; we’re in a little isolated bubble, where people who live here haven’t left the home in six months, aside from going outside in the garden, which is something that is really unfathomable. In spite of it all, older people are still living their lives, continuing to remain positive in such difficult circumstances.

What ideas have you implemented to engage your residents, other than taking photographs of them to recreate classic album covers?

There are other wild and crazy ideas that we use to excite the lives of the residents who live here, to make sure that their time spent here is enjoyable and also productive.

For instance, we do a lot of awareness days. There’s a day for every single type of food. I love residents tasting different types of food that they don’t normally have. We extend this to alcohol as well. We’ve done Whisky Day, Tequila Day, Beer Day, Wine Day and more. It’s not about making residents alcoholics. It’s trying to dispel this idea that these old people just sit there. They can still enjoy new experiences. They’ve had drinks all their lives; why should it stop just because they come into a care setting? I’m all for encouraging them to have a social drink because that’s normal and can be great fun.

I also give residents the chance to do things they have aspired to or that they have never had the chance to experience. Before COVID, I was able to take a 92-year-old resident to see her favorite singer perform live in concert or take a 91-year-old swimming for the first time in over 20 years. Now I just have to rethink to still provide experiences for the residents.

What advice would you give other communities that want to engage residents?

I think you have to get to know each individual resident as well as possible. That can only be done by talking to them, to family members, and to colleagues, and just trying to find out information about what they like, what they don’t like, what they used to do for a career, and their social activities.

How many of these seniors actually used to play bingo before moving into a care home? I can probably tell you—not many. I’m not trying to knock bingo. Bingo is still a fun game. It has good benefits. But there’s more than you can do (in communities) than play board games, cards games and bingo.

It’s really just a case of trying to think up these different ideas. My awareness days are each just one day when somebody can try or taste something different. It’s about sensory experience—whether it’s about taste or hearing or seeing something. All of these sensory experiences can make people remember things from the past, which is a great way to get the brain really working.

Can you talk about your award for Best Activities Coordinator?

That was last year. I was nominated by the manager and some family members as well. And it was just a lovely thing to know that what I was doing was appreciated and acknowledged—even though I don’t do this work to get acknowledgment. There are many things that I do which are never going to be seen; only the residents and I know about what I’ve done. I prefer to keep it that way. Usually nobody ever finds out, but it is very nice to get appreciation, so I was grateful to receive that award from The London Borough of Barnet.

How can people help others who live in care homes?

During lockdown, we’ve seen the importance of people helping each other out. We’ve had a lot of people asking what they can do to help, and I hope that will continue afterwards when we’re open for regular visiting and everything is safe.

A care community can be a welcoming place, where people can drop in just to say hello to the residents. You may not have ever met them, but why not give half an hour of your time to speak to somebody who has lived a long life with lots of experiences? We can all learn something from the elder generation.

One way Robert and his residents are helping others is by raising funds for three charities: DementiaFriends.org.uk, Alzheimers.org.uk and AgeUK.org.uk

You can join the cause by donating through their GoFundMe page or by ordering a charity calendar they’re creating. Watch Robert’s Twitter page at @RobertSpeker to see when the calendar comes out and how to order it.