Retirement home project
"The elderly deserve to get the best of what we are able to give, because
today’s elderly were those who cared for us when we were young"
Otto Bignell (37) works in a retirement home in Oegstgeest, near
Leiden in Holland. Otto worked as an administrator at the home, which has a
committed, motivated and dedicated staff. Yet he became aware that, because
of lack of time and budget, they were often unable to meet many of the personal
and inner needs of the elderly during this important final phase of their lives.
Otto wanted to help with this, and became committed to ensuring the well-being
of the elderly within the home. This led to him researching new ways to support
the efforts of the supervisors and staff of the home, resulting in a series
of unusual and creative projects being introduced.
Today Otto is a member of the management team, responsible for the day-care
activities of the residents and co-ordination of the volunteers. His intention
eventually is to establish a new residential retirement care centre, founded
upon the offering of attention, humanity, respect and dignity to the residents,
wedded to professional care and nursing.
What caused you to become so motivated in caring for the elderly?
There are many stories that demonstrate a huge lack of care and humanity. Just
one is about an Egyptologist who is 91 years old and who has been involved in
research and study all his life. He is as mentally fit as ever, but physically
infirm. He needs the care that a residential home can provide for his body,
but what about his mind. He has to sit out his last days removed from his library
and the love of his life.
Another poignant example is the way that the death and departure of one of
the residents is handled. The deceased are removed without notice. There is
a respectful sentiment behind this, because the staff do not want to confront
those themselves nearing departure with this. However, the simple act of expressing
a collective farewell and calling over the best of another’s qualities
creates a natural intimacy with the fact of the departure from this life.
There are many other stories of the nursing staff simply being unable to spare
the time to provide the extra attention needed for a dying person.
The accumulation of stories such as these caused me to explore what kind of
project I could take up within the retirement home that might help and make
a small difference. This first led to a project involving a living room for
the elderly who are suffering dementia. We decorated one room within the home
in the typical style of the 1950’s, which provides a familiar and secure
environment for many of the residents, who previously would often wander aimlessly
around the home.
The success of this first experiment led Otto to a further and considered next
small step, which was to place some fish tanks in the home.
‘Researches at universities in the United States show how the presence
of a fish tank causes a distinct well being, particularly with the elderly.
When people suffering from Alzheimers gaze at a fish tank they appear to become
more relaxed and settled. The Template Foundation Netherlands has sponsored
the purchase of three fish tanks for the residential home, one of which is two
and a half metres long.
How did the residents respond to the fish tanks?
‘Only a few months later there are stories that show their positive influence.
As an example, there is a lady who likes to be taken to the fish tank twice
a week and who sits there looking at it for hours. Another lady said to me recently:
‘If God had only created these fishes, this alone would be incredible.
How have you established a more intimate contact with the residents?
Well I began to spend time with each of them individually, asking them to help
me understand what it is like to be old. My job is to organise activities for
them and I needed to understand what it is like for them to be their age. These
conversations have already established a new relationship that we are all very
pleased with, and it impressed me how much they often miss and need this kind
of human contact.
That seems surprising given that they are living with many other people and
with many arranged activities. Surely this offers plenty of opportunities for
Many of these people have lost their life partner with whom they shared everything,
or their friends and companions, and suddenly they are with a hundred or so
other people that they don’t know. Yes, there are many activities, but
who do you share your intimate moments with? I think that someone should be
employed simply to be a full-time ear, a kind of ‘professional listener’.
I believe that to be able to speak about what is really going on in you is as
essential as the physical care. To begin to meet this need, I have started to
create a cassette library. People will be able to listen to conversations, for
example two people talking about dignity or loneliness or the fear of dying,
or how to deal with loss. There are also tapes with stories and music.
The next unconventional initiative was to invite a volunteer foot washer once
a week. This improves circulation and helps the system to drain waste products.
‘It is marvellous to watch the beneficial effect this has on people,
it makes them feel special. The foot-washer soaks their feet in warm water,
then the feet are wiped dry and gently rubbed with cream. They also receive
a hot towel to clean their face and hands. The effects of this kind of attention
cannot be underestimated, it should be a common practice for the elderly if
the means were available.
In December 2001 you placed an advertisement in a national Dutch newspaper,
with the help of a sponsor. You appealed to the government to reserve one euro
from each person paying tax towards the support of the elderly, and asked the
population of Holland for support for this. What was the motivation behind this?
Today’s elderly were those who cared for us when we were young, and they
deserve to be offered the best quality of life possible. From this advert I
received over fifty positive responses, and have put together packages for the
government, chairman of the political parties, large companies and prominent
citizens. International contacts have followed, with the USA, Great Britain,
Belgium, Germany and Australia becoming involved.
It is obviously your intention to establish a new kind of care centre
for the elderly when the funds become available. What do you envisage this home
to be like?
‘Adequate professional nursing and basic practical care are foremost,
complemented with extra attention which enhances the dimension of humanity and
respect. There would be specific colours, shapes, furniture, special gardens
and anything else that can help to make life and the approaching departure from
this life as humane and as pleasant as possible.
You speak about approaching departure. I understand that you also have
conversations with the elderly about the process of death?
At the request of the directors, I have begun group exchanges about different
subjects, such as death and dying or the process of growing old gracefully.
The residents began to ask for evenings around different themes, such as dignity.
Many elderly people have little pride in their own experience and wisdom, they
often carry more pride for their children than themselves. This can often compound
because of the lack of confirmation they receive from their environment. I try
to open this area up for discussion - how can one grow old with dignity, despite
the fact that sight, hearing, mobility and other capabilities are decreasing.
Has this more intimate association with the elderly caused you to change?
Above all it has given me a greater understanding of what it is like to be old,
and a profound awareness of the richness that growing older can be. The elderly
are full of amazing and moving stories. Each possesses a treasury of life wisdom
gained from their experience that provides many lessons.
How do your co-workers view these new initiatives and projects?
In the beginning they were a touch cautious, but now there is a fulsome appreciation
and a strong co-operation from the nursing staff and other carers.
Interview by Josina van Schaik
Otto Bignell can be reached at P.O.Box 461, 2300 AL Leiden, the Netherlands.