‘This is so rewarding’

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When flamboyant, fun-loving Heather James sweeps into Aquarius Nursing Home, the residents know it’s time for a party.

When flamboyant, fun-loving Heather James sweeps into Aquarius Nursing Home, the residents know it’s time for a party.

)''Heather James

)''Heather James

They wave and break into huge grins as the pink-haired natural performer bustles through and prepares for a song and dance session.

Moments later, the place erupts into music and merriment as Heather belts out the Hokey Cokey. Residents and staff dance and wave arms and the chair-bound tap feet and fingers in time to the boisterous song.

Sitting quietly in the middle of the tuneful tumult is a lady with a tell-tale flower in her hair, a sparkling outfit and a familiar grin.

This is Heather’s mum Sheila, who like the elderly party lovers around her, has been diagnosed with dementia.

It is through visiting her mum that the former News columnist and radio presenter has become a regular feature at Aquarius – bringing a programme of song and movement to benefit residents with dementia.

‘Stimulation – that’s what the government wants for people in care homes, so that they’re not staring at four walls,’ explains Heather.

And the 63-year-old is certainly feeling the benefits herself. ‘Doing this has become one of the most rewarding times of my life,’ she says.

‘To see a resident who initially slept or was disinterested in the early sessions, now bright-eyed, smiling, singing and starting to move a hand or foot is absolutely wonderful.’

Heather’s service is called Melody and Motion and has grown out of her own and Sheila’s backgrounds as dance teachers.

Admitting that they’ve always had a strained relationship, Heather says that nevertheless the music and moves of the ballroom unite them.

‘Dancing has always been our link,’ she says. ‘My mum and I used to clear the floor when we jived.

‘She would take the part of the man and even in her 70s could throw me across the floor.’

It was while she was visiting an increasingly confused and chair-bound Sheila that the eye-catching dance expert decided to tap into their shared passion.

It all began with ‘one two and a cha cha cha’ as Heather drummed out the steps of popular Latin dances with her hands.

‘Having read loads on dementia, one of the things is to stimulate memory.

‘So when I visited Ma, I would sit and ‘dance’ waltz, quickstep, cha cha and jive with my hands and sing the songs – trying to encourage thoughts of the past.’

It wasn’t long before Heather noticed that she was having an effect on others.

‘After a few weeks I noticed two gentlemen residents sat next to mum, started to join in.

‘So I moved my chair so I was in front of all three of them and off we all went – doing our seated dancing.’

Heather then remembered an article in the national press.

Programmes backed by the Harvard Medical School suggest that choreography has promise in the management of dementia.

Following and participating in sequenced moves could create new brain cells and slow mental decline.

So Heather looked into other music and movement programmes and developed her own.

It’s all about mimicking her hand movements, says the former dance teacher who loves her new role at the home.

Heather chose Aquarius for Sheila because it already had an excellent entertainments programme.

But manager Lizzie Lind and head of care Sharon Tucker say Heather has brought a new level of fun.

‘I think her personality has a great deal to do with it,’ says Sharon. ‘The residents find her particularly engaging.’

Lizzie adds: ‘They see her and think “we’re going to have fun, we’re going to sing and dance”.’

Heather, from Southsea, can also tap into her own experience. Her mum and dad Stan were well-known dance teachers in the city.

Not long after Stan died, Heather noticed Sheila becoming confused.

She says the change was devastating, even though mum and daughter had never seen eye to eye.

‘We’re too similar I suppose and fought like hell but we had this connection, we share quite a naughty sense of humour.

‘Mum had always been a diva, vibrant and glamorous. To find out she was going out half dressed, stinking and with greasy hair was heartbreaking.’

Now she makes sure ‘Ma’ looks lovely and is comforted by the fact that she’s well cared for – and of course entertained.

Outgoing Heather’s having a blast at the home and has gathered plenty of expertise along the way.

Falling into the trap of thinking her students wanted old time party dances, she soon learned otherwise.

They do but they also want the tracks of their years, including Tom Jones’ It’s Not Unusual and Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

Now Heather is seeing and recording the progress of residents who struggled to stay awake at the start.

‘Sometimes it’s just a foot moving as they’re dozing but that’s great to see.’

And she admits she’s paving the way for the future.

‘They say one in three will get dementia. So I want to make sure that if I do there’s song and dance on the way to the pearly gates.’

Aquarius Nursing Home specialises in dementia and related disorders.

As well as residential care, it offers day care for people living in Portsmouth, Southsea and the surrounding areas.

The team’s aim is to ensure that each person attending receives care tailored for the individual and assist them to live as independently as possible.

It offers fully-trained nurses and care plans which include physical and psychological monitoring.

Call (023) 9281 1824 for information.

As well as working with people diagnosed with dementia, Heather James is writing a book about her experiences with her mum.

She is also offering other care homes the chance to try Melody and Motion with a free half-hour session.

Call Heather on (07582) 370900.

There are several charities helping and advising carers of people with dementia and related disorders.

They include dementiauk.org and alzheimers.org.uk.