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Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Australian Nursing Home Foundation (est. 1980) helps older Chinese people in Sydney live a decent life, even those, like the two women in the pic, who are living with dementia. "They remember when it's Tuesday," a volunteer at the Cadigal room, a space attached to Ashfield municipal swimming pool, told me. "Even when they don't remember anything else."

This woman's mother in Hong Kong lives with the disease and she volunteers here, she says, so that when she goes back there, she can do the same things ANHF does. Her three children live in Australia. But this conversation happened after the fun.

With Karen, my classmate, I sat in on the activities used to stimulate and enhance the wellbeing of the four women and their carers, often family members. While one ANHF staffer takes the people with dementia (PWD) through a series of exercises and games, the carers sit off to one side, behind a whiteboard set as a screen in the middle of the room. It's a place of improvisations in more ways than one.

The door to the Cadigal room can't be opened from the outside, so when I first entered I had to step around a blue, cloth-covered chair. Others were stacked against the wall. Directly in front of the entrance a dozen of them were arranged in a circle. The carers and the PWD milled about.

We were greeted by Bridget, on whose black suit jacket an ANHF badge told us she was a staff member (forget the appellation). We discussed photos. "It's alright if you don't identify them, to use the photos in the media," she said. I suggested a three-quarters shot. She thought about it for a moment and said she'd ask the carers.

We sat down. Chinese people are known to do gentle exercise. In Shanghai, the little, dirt-covered parks in the big city are dotted with older people doing tai-chi of a morning. When the ANHF staffer began to run through a series of arm movements, some of the PWD followed. One, clearly more deeply affected by the disease, did not. But she laughed a lot. We all laughed at her grimaces and antics. A real card.

Before we played a new game Bridget came to me and told me it was OK to use a profile shot "if you depict our activities in a positive light". I didn't promise it, but I know now, having been there for two hours, that I could do nothing else.

In the new game, in the middle of the circle of PWD, five red cardboard squares with Chinese characters embossed in gold, were laid out in a square. Five dayglo-yellow cushions were passed to the first person in the circle. You have to throw a cushion into a square. Hand-eye coordination suffers with dementia, so this game has a practical application as well as being fun. Karen and I, naturally, played too.

After a while, we began to throw the little yellow cushions at random between us. It became quite riotous as the pace picked up and we started challenging each other to catch them.

Then tea. Oolong-cha for me, no sugar. At this point Karen took my voice recorder and sat with the women, talking. She made three files totalling about 45 MB in size. These will be transcribed and translated, forming part of our resources for the material we must write for assessment and submission to the media.

We had so much fun and I learned a lot about the disease. The carer of the PWD on the right in the pic, sat with me and we talked. He gave me his card. He said he was forced to quit his software programming job to care for his mother, and now runs a business out of his home. Government income is not sufficient to live, he says.

Bridget and I established a good rapport, through playing with the PWD, and she gave me details of another person I can talk to. Then Karen and I got into my car and we drove back to the uni so I could get to class on time.

Before going to the Cadigal room, I had spent an hour with the client, planning the media release. All in all a very constructive and rewarding day. I'll never forget it.

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