John & Marian

When I was asked if I could say something about my thoughts on Willow Wood and what I have got from our visits I wasn't sure, but here goes!

When it was announced that Tameside was having a Hospice built for the people of Tameside & Glossop it sounded like the perfect place for people needing palliative care, but that was all I know about from media coverage. I'd never visited until Mollie, a friend of mine was taken in for end-of-life care. I wasn't sure how I felt about actually going to visit, and though it would be a solemn and sad place, but Mollie was special and I felt I had to go so I did! I'm glad I did!

How wrong can you be about a place! From the reception volunteers to the doctors and nurses everyone had a smile and were so cheerful and friendly - it was a nice experience, not at all sad. Mollie was in a lovely room and was dressed and chatting; everyone who came in were friendly and pleasant, she couldn't praise them enough for their care and attention.

A few years later I was caring for my husband John, and we were asked if he'd like to attend Willow Wood for a few hours. John wasn't too keen, but we decided to try it and we were greeted by two smiling volunteers on reception. Another lovely volunteer asked if we'd like tea or coffee and toast? John's face was a picture - he always loved his food! When I returned he was fine, I needn't have worried and he was happy to go again. Each time it was the same warm, happy place to be and such a lovely break for me and the other carers, it helped us recharge our batteries and have a bit of 'me time'.

As the years went on we were invited to a monthly trial of the Dementia Cafe, for both those with Dementia and their carers for a chat and to relax with others. It's such a lovely afternoon, and although we were all strangers at first we soon got to know each other and realise how much we needed to be there. It's such a good atmosphere, dementia nurses Nicola and Sandra and the other staff and volunteers can't do enough to keep everyone happy with lots of tea and cakes (naughty but nice, they do spoil us all). When carers are looking a bit tired or weary you get a tap on your shoulder and someone asks if you would like a hand massage or to try reflexology, Reiki or a chat. It's lovely and certainly makes you feel better and back to normal for a bit. People came to entertain us, others gave talks about old times, gardening tips and a walk round the beautiful relaxing garden.

We've laughed and sometimes cried, we've shared feelings with each other that, as most carers know, we've kept those feelings deep inside us because we have a job to do in caring, and if we let the feelings out and our guard down how could we rally and carry on? But we've learned at the Dementia Cafe we can talk to other carers and staff and let those feelings out, because we've realised we're not alone, we are all one of many and it's helped us to carry on. The friends we've met by going to the Dementia group have been amazing, we have a bond with each other because we've all been there and some still are, but thanks to Nic, Sandra, Sarah and many others, plus each other, it's helped us all to cope and realise that it's ok to have 'me time'. They are all wonderful, and Willow Wood is an amazing place with so many dedicated caring people it's a joy to be a small part of it.

One of the volunteers who played a huge part at the was Eric, who sadly is no longer with us, but I'm sure wherever he is he will be causing havoc! Being his lovely, funny self; bless you Eric!

Before the first lockdown, Nic asked the first six of us who came to the cafe to consider a pilot scheme, where we would talk about our caring role and what it was like 24/7. At the first meeting there was a group of 5 women and one brave man, Harold plus Nic and Sarah, the counsellor. We introduced ourselves and spoke about who we cared for and how long we had done it etc. It's difficult to say how you feel as a carer, because it's something you do for the person you love; it's that keeps you going because some days it would be easier to just run away, but you never do because you feel it's your duty. And it's the life and love you have shared with this person, your husband or wife or relative who needs you more now than ever before and they keep you going, they can't help what's happened to them, they need us and we needed the help and support from the family at Willow Wood. We can tell them things we have kept from our families and they helped us all to carry on.

Each week we shared out stories and realised how similar our caring roles were. the highs, the lows, the exhaustion you feel on a daily basis and the feelings of guilt. We had laughs at these meetings, we cried at some, but as the weeks passed our group became close and a deeper bond was formed. We were good for each other and with the help and support from Nic and Sarah at the meetings we felt brighter and a load lifted off our shoulders and from then on we knew that help was just a phone call away; we all got so much from those meetings.

Our group - Kath, Elaine, Sheila, Sylvia, Harold and me, Marian (the chatty one before the rest of the group tell you), agreed to stay in touch. Sarah suggested to do a weekly/monthly catch up with each other on WhatsApp, so we did. We call our group 'Happy Times' and we do have good times together thanks to Sheila who organises monthly meals out, coffee at the garden centre and we are going to the theatre soon too.

Harold sings lovely songs to us at the Dementia Cafe, usually making us cry - we're amazed he remembers all the words. He is so brave being the only man with five women, but his daughter Melissa says he loves it, and looks forward to meeting up with his harem as she calls us!

We message every night about 9pm to keep in touch and see how we all are. Some of us have lost our husbands which is hard, and you feel lost because you have never had so much free time with nothing to do, but thanks to our meetings and Willow Wood and the meals out Sheila organises it has helped us all. Without each other it would have been harder to get through, and we could never thank Willow Wood and everyone who has offered us help and support from the word go enough. Without it, and the friendships that have come from our first meeting and have helped us all, I doubt we could have gone on much longer.

Willow Wood is a fantastic place and needs to be supported in every way possible. It's a place that offers solace for end of life patients and support for their families, but it's also a lifeline for carers and the many people who need their help and support.

They are all truly amazing! It's an amazing place to go and it won't be long before you're smiling, even a laugh or two. You could never buy a better tonic!

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