At the age of 79, former occupational therapist Joan Huddleston is as old or older than some of the people she volunteers with. But in many ways, a shared life experience and memories of events more than half a decade ago are a bonus, especially when the people she visits suffer from dementia. Joan, who lives in south Belfast, has been an Age NI volunteer for four years, having decided to put the many years’ knowledge gleaned in her profession to good use. She visits two elderly women, both of whom have different degrees of dementia, in their own homes each week. One of them, whose condition is quite advanced, doesn’t really remember who Joan is from visit to visit so she has to be patient.

Despite this, the two women, separated in age by just four months, have a lot in common and chat away happily about the past. “We talk about wartime rationing and bombs and shelters, and how hospitals used to be,” said Joan. “She was a nurse at the Royal Victoria Children’s Hospital and she was born in England, like I was, so we have common interests. She likes to talk about when she was a child and her early nursing days. She and I can really talk on the same level.”

The other pensioner Joan volunteers with values her company so much that she “hates it” when she goes on holidays. “She regards me as her friend,” said Joan. “She is in early stage dementia but she has had it for a long time and has been at a nice, steady level for some time. “She tells me a lot about her family, her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. If she has any particular problems, I ask if she wants me to deal with them for her and if she does I pass them on to my supervisor.

It’s quite often much easier to speak to someone outside the family. “I am a guest in her house. I am not there to judge or give her the answer to her problems. I am there to listen and talk.” Joan moved to Northern Ireland 56 years ago to take up a post at Musgrave Park Hospital. She finds that women, in particular, who have dedicated their lives to their families can find themselves isolated and lonely when their husbands die and their children leave home. “Often, they have let their friendships slip because they have stopped working and have been busy looking after their home and children, without thinking about what’s going to happen in the future,” she said.

“When you have dementia, it makes it difficult for other people to have patience with you. It’s different if you have old friends, they put up with you and your oddities.” The benefits of volunteering work both ways. Not only does Joan enjoy it, but it helps fill her time and makes her feel more grateful. “I am mentally sound and I am physically able. As long as people still need me, I will carry on volunteering,” she said. “I would like to think someone would do the same for me some day. I hope I will never be in that position but you never know.”

Over the years, Joan has maintained her friendships and has a group with whom she goes out walking. She also enjoys Pilates, going to the Queen’s Film Theatre and has friends in her church. Joan volunteers through our My Life, My Way project for people with dementia and their carers in the Belfast and Northern Trust areas. It is aimed at hard-to-reach, older people who are isolated. Volunteers offer a friendly face and listening ear and can provide signposting and relevant information about care options and entitlements which will allow the individual with dementia or their carer to make better informed decisions. We have more than 300 volunteers who play a vital role, from raising funds and working in the charity’s shops to providing direct support to older people and promoting their voice in the community.

Anyone interested in volunteering should contact us on 028 9024 5729 or email [email protected]

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