Abseiling, canoeing and parachute jumping are not normally activities enjoyed by older people. But the ExtraCare Charitable Trust, which cares for them, is no ordinary charity. These activities are offered by the trust to help people with dementia to regain their real selves.
"Parachute jumps may sound a bit extreme," says Steve Crump, assistant director of fundraising at ExtraCare. "But we'll fix it for them because we are about activity-based care in whatever form it takes. Next week, someone will be walking with wolves."
For Tom Howell, who had lost the confidence to venture out of ExtraCare's Bushfield Court, a sheltered housing centre in Wolverhampton, riding a bike was enough to regain his interest in life. "His eyes lit up when I offered him a bike," says carer Sue Millington. "He said 'It's mine', and with a little help he climbed onto the saddle and started to ride around. He is now regularly seen riding and is more confident and much happier."
With a total income of £25 million, the Coventry-based charity has 1,200 volunteers and 1,500 trained staff such as nurses, speech therapists and aromatherapists.
Last July, the trust began a two-year pilot for its Enriched Activities Programme. It was inspired by an activity holiday to the Calvert Trust in Devon three years previously, when ExtraCare took a number of residents with dementia. Specialists mapped them as they took part in adventurous activities, with response indicators showing considerable progress.
Crump explains: "We found that through being on holiday and a change of routine, levels of wellbeing most definitely increased."
This progressive approach to the complex issue of dementia formed the bedrock of the programme. Specialist healthcare professionals began working in three ExtraCare nursing homes and Bushfield Court.
Health carers are backed up by the highly trained 'locksmiths', so-called because they use individual programmes of activity to unlock hidden potentials.
Karen Woolrich, one of four locksmiths currently employed, said: "We do so through a session in the gym or an hour spent reminiscing. We will effect change, ensuring that meals are enjoyed, sleep is improved and fitness enhanced."
The programme is likely to be rolled out to between four and six more ExtraCare project sites after this pilot ends next May.