Once Upon a Time in the West. (West Suffolk... not Dodge City!)

Yee-hah! Staff, visitors and club members at the Chilton Centres Wild West themed day. Freddys loo

Yee-hah! Staff, visitors and club members at the Chilton Centres Wild West themed day. Freddys looking a bit bemused by it all! - Credit: Archant

Erase from your mind the image of dreary beige chairs in a line and folk staring into space as the clock ticks rather too loudly. Older age can and should be fun. STEVEN RUSSELL buckles his spurs and visits a place where it is just that

Linda Howard on her rather tetchy-looking horse!

Linda Howard on her rather tetchy-looking horse! - Credit: Archant

And this,” announces Jilly Vince with dramatic pause, “is Calamity Linda.” From the office emerges Linda Howard – wearing a cowboy hat, neckerchief and checked shirt… and riding a blow-up horse.

There’s even a little fan, in his derrière, to keep Dobbin inflated.

It’s high noon at the O.K. Corral. Actually, it’s eight minutes past 11 and this is a unit on a light industrial estate in Sudbury. But that’s not important. What is important is that everyone looks as if they’re having a good time – sharing a laugh as they try to “shoot cans” off a “wall”. (No guns, of course; it’s just accurate throwing that’s required. So mind the plastic cacti.)

This is Wild West Day at the Chilton Centre – an Age UK Suffolk day-service club for older people with dementia: from early memory loss to the later stages of the condition.

The Age UK Suffolks Wild West theme lunch club in Sudbury.

The Age UK Suffolks Wild West theme lunch club in Sudbury. - Credit: Archant

Open from Monday to Friday, it welcomes about 12 or 14 club members at a time – offering friendship and activities, a cooked lunch and even tea and toast to get the day off to a flying start. Many folk attend for several sessions each week.

Themed occasions like this one are held every couple of months, chosen by club members from a list that this time included options like tropical seaside, carnival, and France.

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“We had Chilton by the Sea last year,” says Jilly as we adjourn to her office, where little signs raise a chuckle – like one that says “I keep smiling because I have absolutely no idea what is going on.” (I need one of those for my desk.)

The centre manager is dressed as a stand-no-nonsense saloon owner. (I did half-hear a rather fruitier description, earlier, but no-one will tell me what it was! She does have a nice drawling catchphrase, though: “Nah spittin’ in maa saloooon.”)

Ellena Dodds is backstop during a pre-lunch game of bowling.

Ellena Dodds is backstop during a pre-lunch game of bowling. - Credit: Archant

Staff member Chelsea Howell is Pocahontas, the Native American chief’s daughter who married a Norfolk-born colonist, and Ellena Dodds a fresh-faced cowgirl.

Freddy, an 18-month-old collie – a “Pets As Therapy” dog – belongs to Linda Howard (she of the inflatable stallion). His face is on a sheriff’s poster struck to the wall – “wanted for being too darn cute”. He is, too.

“People miss him so much when he doesn’t come,” says Jilly.

The centre also has some stalwart volunteers. “We couldn’t do without them.”

Jilly talks about some of the other themes they’ve chosen in the past to make the days a little bit extra-special.

“We brought the seaside here, because the members don’t like to travel so much, so we turned this into something like Skegness! We had a sandpit. We had ice-creams. Party games. Men with hankies on their heads! We just transformed the place and they loved it. We were all pretty tired by the end of it, though!”

Once a month, too, they set up a Sudbury version of the old Lyons Corner Houses – the genteel restaurants that ran from 1909 to the end of the 1970s and were famous for their cream teas. “All the staff have their uniforms, and we have doilies and teacups and saucers and tongs.”

Then there are the in-house pantos – “Quite infamous… because they’re so bad!” – that family members can also come to enjoy. Cinderella, it was, the year before last. The fairy had a super wand, which made a lovely noise when waved, but it gave up the ghost early on. Creating transformational magic was obviously draining.

Then there was a wired frock, big and pink. It was meant to be a female clown’s costume, “but it was more like something from Star Trek revisited. It was fabulous but it was wired, and when you sat down… well, we had to find some trousers.”

The centre’s been open 12 years and Jilly has worked here for 11 of those.

So what else happens at Chilton? “If it’s safe and it’s legal, we’ll do it!” she laughs. “They have so many diverse things they want to do – so many hobbies; so many things they want to get back that they used to do. One guy’s been teaching them a form of poker! We just give them a jolly good day.”

It’s not always so full-on, of course. Groups of members will usually split off and do different things during the days they come here, including sitting and chatting. “It’s important to go with what they want to do.”

So here’s a serious question. What does it all achieve? Jilly quotes the feedback from families: I got my dad back… Mum’s a different person… We’ve something to talk about now…

“Even silly things like this” – Wild West Day – “can help, because they’re laughing, they’re using this (Jilly points to her head), they’re having fun.” Definitely better than sitting in front of daytime TV, I suggest. “Which a lot of them do.

“One of our guys brought me a photo. ‘I want you to look at this.’ It was a room with the most awful wallpaper. He said ‘That’s what I’ve been looking at for five years.’ Now, he says, ‘I come here, I go home, I’m exhausted but I’ve had good fun.’”

Inside, you’d never guess this was an industrial unit. Fresh and welcoming, it manages to be both cosy and airy. A volunteer pianist comes twice a week to entertain. There’s a courtyard with garden furniture and a gazebo, too.

When Jilly started, they could take 10 people each session. Then it rose to a dozen. “Now, the need is so great we’re up to 14. We’re full, which is so gratifying. If we were bigger, I could take more.”

Not so long ago, social services block-bought places, but that came to an end. Now, nearly all members are privately-funded. Some folk live alone, others with a spouse or family members. Some are in residential homes. Some members travel from as far away as Clare.

The bowling game is coming to a halt and it will soon be time for lunch: Ranch-house hotpot, followed by Ponderosa ginger pudding with whisky cream sauce.

“Peace and quiet will reign this afternoon,” Jilly smiles. “What members need, I think, is a little bit of this, mixed with the nurturing and the sitting and chatting.

“You go home at night and you’re exhausted, but you think ‘That worked, what we did today’.

“I know, when you read all these books on dementia, it’s ‘reminiscence is so important’, but it’s also about ‘today’; about being in the present.

“Memories are important – someone brought in a wedding book and we’ll sit and look at that today – but it’s also about ‘current’. It’s about grandchildren; it’s about what we’re going to do this afternoon – looking ahead as well as backwards.

“We love reminiscing, but you don’t want to live in the past. We’re all made of memories, but, if you’ve forgotten so much, think of today.”

A gentleman called Bob pops in to tell me about the difference the centre has made to him and his wife, who comes on other days of the week. They’ve been married more than 50 years.

Gloria was diagnosed last summer with early memory loss. “It’s a nice way of saying ‘the early stages of dementia’,” Bob says. “I could see that things weren’t quite right in the memory area for some time before that.”

He’s taken over the cooking – “my wife gets in a tangle with all sorts of practical things” – and they started looking at what help was available.

Bob learned about Chilton Centre and one day earlier this year contrived a reason to drop in with Gloria. Manager Jilly told her “We do many things here. Why don’t you come for a trial session?”

Gloria was wary. She told her husband “Well, I’ll go this once, but I’m never going again.”

Bob smiles at the memory. “She came… couldn’t wait to come back! She was that taken with what went on.” Gloria now comes three times a week “and she thoroughly enjoys it”. A natural nurturer, she seems to have a knack of making newcomers feel welcome.

“I think the point for us is that we still live in our own house, so apart from going shopping and to the library, and meeting people, there’s just the two of us rattling around,” says Bob.

“I suffer with deafness and if she says something and I can’t hear, she gets annoyed. That’s one of the things with this business: people seem to get annoyed very easily. The slightest thing, said in all innocence, can trigger something, and she gets annoyed and bad-tempered over it. If there’s just the two of you in the house, that doesn’t help.”

Gloria seems to thrive on the new routine, while Bob has the chance to do a bit of shopping and enjoy some hobbies and pastimes. “It gives me a much-needed break, while I know she’s getting excellent care.

“If we didn’t have this… seven days a week, at home, you couldn’t fill some of the days with going into town to shop, going to the library, and going for a bit of a drive out.

“In our case, it’s excellent at fulfilling a need.”

Everyone is happy ? and not just because of the lovely lunch they’ve enjoyed.

Doris is here twice a week. “I look forward to coming,” she says. “I lost my husband with cancer and I was on my own.

“It was my daughter. She came round here to see Jilly. She said ‘It’s ever so nice. Will you go?’ I said ‘Ooh, I don’t know.’ But she said ‘When you think, isn’t it better than sitting here on your own, looking miserable? I thought it would be a break for you, meeting other people.’

“She said ‘If I’m at work and know you’re all right, I’ll get on better.’ She was ever so pleased when I went. I said I really liked it. The people are ever so friendly.”

What’s the best thing about Chilton? “I think just meeting everybody,” says Kate. “When you’re at home on your own, there’s just you and four walls. I think it’s so important to get out and meet other people and do other things.”

When I put the same question to Kathleen, a great-grandmother several times over, she has a succinct answer: “Friends.”

One of them sits to her left. Irene was encouraged to start coming by her son, but she admits she was reluctant.

“I said ‘I won’t know anybody.’ ‘Mother, you’ll get to know people. You talk to people. It’s not as though you sit back all the time.’”

And now? “It’s nice to get out. Everybody is so friendly. You don’t just sit around ? we do lots of things.”

Days usually start with a game or activity. There’s more after lunch, plus tea and biscuits, and the chance for a good old chat, “which I think is the most important thing, really”, adds Kate.

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