As Tessa Razafindrakoto started walking away, a patient came with her. “We’re going, but you’re staying here,” Tessa said patiently. “How was I supposed to know that?” responded the old lady. “I just don’t know these things anymore.” As well as being a Psychology master student, Tessa (22) is also a volunteer at Pniël care home on Oudedijk in Rotterdam.
Tessa is host on the department for people with dementia. She helps set the tables, asks which of the two meal options the patients want to eat, but mainly she chats a lot with people. She has a four-hour shift and does two shifts a week. It feels rather sterile in the corridors downstairs, as care homes are, but upstairs there are two decorated living rooms. There’s even an open fire, even though it’s not a working one.
The first episode
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We stood talking at the entrance. Every now and then a resident shuffled by using a Zimmer frame. Taking photos particularly attracted attention. “Well, this is a bit of a to-do, isn’t it,” was a passing comment. “But she’ll certainly look lovely on it.” When Tessa reached for the coffee pot for the photo, a man at the table immediately became enthusiastic. “Ooh – time for coffee!” But she had to disappoint him, as it wasn’t time yet.
Tessa started here two months ago. She had the idea after her mother’s friend became seriously ill; so ill that she ended up in a palliative care home. “I really noticed what an valuable contribution volunteers made there. Visiting is difficult for families, but as a stranger you can keep more of a distance and yet still be there for them.” There is a palliative establishment on Oudedijk and Tessa originally contacted them. “But you needed to be available for at least a year and, as I’m in the final phase of my studies, I couldn’t commit to that. But luckily I was able to start at Pniël.”
Far from easy
Tessa found her first day far from easy. “It’s something you need to get used to because people with dementia have a different way of thinking from healthy people. I likely made a lot of mistakes at the start. For instance, a patient asked me where I came from, so I answered that I was born in France. And then it’s really normal to ask, ‘where do you come from?’, but when I did that, the patient really started to panic. Because of the dementia, the person didn’t understand these kinds of things anymore.”
According to Tessa, it becomes easier once you’ve got to know people. “Now I know that a certain lady is always asking about Theo and that she’s referring to her husband. So I say: ‘Theo, that’s your husband, isn’t it? He’s a lovely chap.’ She always talks about him saying ‘he’s a lovely chap’ and this recognition and acknowledgement makes her feel calm.” The work can be difficult, but Tessa doesn’t find it tough. “I can’t make these people better, but I can try to make their lives as nice as possible.”
Tessa is not the youngest in the care home, as many nurses in training do a work placement here. “But among the volunteers I really stand out; the rest are much older.” One day she received really useful advice from another volunteer. “He said: ‘It’s hard work sometimes. But after a shift, just think about whether your battery is more fully charged or emptier than before.’ At first it seemed to me to be a phrase from a book of quotes, but it was really good advice. After four hours of working here, I feel better than I did before.”