PASSIONATE CARER: Ohope Beach Care diversional therapist Missy Foulkes takes time out from her busy schedule. Photo Troy Baker D8769-02

MISSY Foulkes is hard to miss in her workplace, a workplace she says is also like her home.

Striding about Ohope Beach Care where she works as a diversional therapist, it’s clear her presence in the rest home plays a vital role in the lives of the residents who live there.

Eastern Bay Life caught up with her in the secure dementia unit at Ohope Beach Care where much of her time is spent, and where the love and joie de vivre of a woman passionate about her role seems to envelop all who are in her care.

What does the role of a diversional therapist entail?

Well, I create and co-ordinate the activities programme for our residents, for the dementia unit and the rest home wing. I run the activities when I’m there and oversee its implementation when I’m not. I love it. I’ve been working in the care-giving field for more than 30 years now.

Have most of those years been in Whakatane?

I come from the United States. I grew up in Pennsylvania and that’s where I did my training and study. You have to formally train to be a caregiver there, and after that, I spent four years studying to be a diversional therapist. But I’ve been in New Zealand for 20 years now.

What brought you here?

An online romance with a Kiwi who is now my husband. We’d met online and we’d been corresponding for a couple of years when he came over to Pennsylvania to see me, and later, asked me to marry him.

And how do you find life here in New Zealand?

I love it, I’ve been so happy. And Whakatane is the most amazing place, people are so friendly, and everyone seems to know everyone. This is my home now.

Have you been at Ohope Beach Care for a long time?

Not so long. I’ve been here for two-and-a-half years now. I worked at Golden Pond in Whakatane for 12 years earlier on though and then I decided it was time to take a break. I worked as the assistant manager at Curves Gym in Kope for three years, and then spent a year working at Kathmandu.

So, what brought you back to working with elderly?

I’m a people person and I love being able to help. I really enjoy working with elderly people and I have a lot of fun with them. I’d like to think I bring love and companionship to their lives.

The more isolated people get, particularly those with dementia, the more they need one on one attention, and lots of cuddle therapy, as I call it. I give lots of cuddle therapy. I love it.

And I like to joke around and have fun with everyone. I might sing a song, out of tune and with the wrong words, I make the song about me or about them and usually they’ll just think it’s hilarious. We have a lot of fun.

Sometimes it can just be a little laugh or smile shared that makes all the difference to someone’s day.

What type of activities do you do with the residents?

I create different programmes for the dementia unit residents and the rest home wing, though some of them overlap. We do activities that stimulate the brain and lots of sensory or textural-based activities, art and crafts and we do physical activity programmes.

I’ve just completed study and training as a tai-chi instructor for people with memory loss or heart conditions. I think it’s an amazing programme. I’m going to use the breathing techniques with our dementia residents and the physical programme with the others. I also get as many groups or individuals as possible in to entertain everyone. Music is the most powerful therapy, particularly for our patients who have dementia.

Numerous studies have shown music to be beneficial for dementia. Why do you think that is?

I can’t spell out the scientific evidence off the top of my head, though there’s plenty of it. I think it’s because music is so often associated with good times and happy memories, and with our dementia patients, hearing music that they’ve specifically known, taps into their memories in a way that nothing else can.

They come to life and for the time they’re listening to that music, they are more able to live in the moment. It’s amazing to see, not just for us but for the resident’s family members who might happen to be there. They get to see their mother or father return to being more of the person they’ve always known.

And we’re very lucky here. We have a number of people come in to perform and we have the EBOP-alele ukulele group who are just wonderful. They’re very lively and upbeat and bring so much love and fun with them. They come in and just make themselves part of our home. They’re so intuitive and knowledgeable and they’re very interactive. They get our residents singing and dancing and it’s just fantastic. They really are a gift.

You have a private Facebook group to share such moments with the families?

Yes, I wanted to do that because often family members don’t often get to see their loved ones being happy and expressive very often. Sometimes they might have had a run of seeing them unhappy, but because we’re here all the time, we get to see more of the happy times. I wanted to be able to share those moments with the families. It’s been really popular.

Can you suggest ways the community can help support elderly who are now in rest homes in their area?

Well, we are always looking for volunteers. We have some lovely ones, the St John volunteers for instance, but we are always looking for people who would be happy to come in and spend time with our residents.

We’ve recently had confirmation from Ohope Beach School that some of their students are going to come and perform for us and that’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. It’s great for our people to have contact with the children in their own community.

We’re also always on the lookout for something special that we can raffle to raise funds for activities.

We don’t have an endless pool of money, so every bit helps. We recently raffled a beautiful handmade blanket, and at the moment we’re raffling the most incredible handmade wooden toys. It all provides a bit of extra money to support activities for our residents.

You’re clearly very passionate about your job. It must, though, come with its challenges?

It’s actually such a rewarding job. I really do love it. Yes, it is challenging and most days I go home exhausted and drained. I was in bed by 7.30 last night. Things don’t always go my way. Having enough people and hands available to ensure all our residents are occupied and happy can be difficult. Like any job, it can be very hard.

But in this job, you get to make people’s lives better, and that’s hard to beat. And besides,

I have a close relationship with all my residents. We all tend to fall a little bit in love with each other, so once you start working in this field, it’s pretty hard to leave again.