Florence Bawak, a dementia matron at Stockport NHS Foundation Trust, usually starts her day at 7am with memory assessments.
As she manoeuvres around the hospital the halls echo with only a low murmur and she can hear her footsteps tapping linoleum. She checks on patients over the age of 75, and asks them about their forgetfulness. These quiet mornings are are a highlight for Ms Bawak.
“It’s one of the best parts of my day. Just talking about patients’ memories clinically you get a lot of stories about life experiences,” she explains. “Sometimes people can talk to me about how they are struggling with dementia. They feel like they can open up to me. Those are some of my favourite parts of my job.”
Ms Bawak describes dementia care as something she “walked into” after enjoying placements in mental health and primary care during her nurse training. “I thought, ‘I’ll go into this area where I know nothing so that I can learn something. And I’ve learned a lot,” she says. Ms Bawak explains that one of the reasons she has stayed in dementia care is the emotional support it reaps.
“It doesn’t matter how bad the dementia gets they still are very concerned with the emotional wellbeing of the people around them”
“Dementia care is one of the segments of healthcare where you get thanked,” she says. “The patients really look out for your emotions, it doesn’t matter how bad the dementia gets they still are very concerned with the emotional wellbeing of the people around them.”
Nursing as a profession, however, was not something Ms Bawak walked into. Instead, it was something that she was born into.
Ms Bawak’s mother worked as a nurse for the majority of her life. “I grew up in Cameroon, and my mum would take me to work with her,” she says. “And when she took her work home with her, I would watch her. I loved it.”
Ms Bawak moved to the UK for university, following in the footsteps of her father. “My dad went to school in Liverpool, and he really wanted his kids to also have that experience,” she says. “So, I came to England and went to school.”
“We wanted something that we could use to keep patients occupied and settled on wards”
Currently in Stockport – where she has been for about two years - Ms Bawak is championing the Knit-a-Mitt Campaign, which asks knitters or crocheters to create “activity mitts” or “twiddle muffs” for patients to wear. The mittens are decorated with zips, buttons and beads to give patients something concrete to focus on.
“We wanted something that we could use to keep patients occupied and settled on wards,” Ms Bawak says. “Most of the time when they are wandering it’s not because they have nothing to do, it is because they are looking for something to do.”
What Ms Bawak and her colleagues have found is that the twiddle muffs also provide an avenue of communication. “It stimulates conversation,” she notes. “There was one woman who wouldn’t say anything. But one day I came in and gave her a mitten. She looked at it, and looked at me and said ‘beautiful’. That was the basis for starting a conversation and a relationship.”
Ms Bawak also lauds the good this programme has done for people around the country. “We have had so much support from all around England. One the ladies who makes the mitts had suffered from alcohol problems and making mittens kept her occupied, it’s giving her some therapy and helping her mental health,” Ms Bawak aptly suggests.
“I don’t think that there is anything that I could do that would be enough”
But non-profit campaigns aside, what Ms Bawak considers one of her greatest achievements in her time at Stockport – as well as within the time of her career – is providing support to the dementia carers around her.
“What I have particularly enjoyed is supporting carers, they aren’t praised enough for the job they do,” she says. “Supporting them to understand that they have made the right choice when they make it is [a great achievement].”
But, after a moment of reflection on her achievements, Ms Bawak humbly notes, “I still have a lot I could do, I don’t think that there is anything that I could do that would be enough.”
Sometimes though, much like in the case of Ms Bawak, simply caring is enough.