Carolyn tells of her working life from her art training and holiday jobs (including supplying embroidery materials to Judi Dench!) through to qualified occupational therapy work with dementia patients, amputees, and in mental health on rotations in the Norfolk area. After an adventurous trip to Argentina, she worked in social services assessing benefits and moved to the Eastern region dealing with all kinds of characters and situations. Her talent for art and crafts led to a career helping others.
I was born at Snaresbrook just outside London in 1946. My Dad was a bank manager and Mum worked part time in a local Estate Agents as a secretary. I went to a nearby school in Woodford Green, the County High school for ‘gals ‘ for which I had to pass the 11 plus. I was a clever girl, but it was a horrible school. My brother went to the local Public School. He got a scholarship so our parents didn’t have to pay. My sister didn’t pass the 11+ so she went to a local Secondary Modern. So one child at Secondary Modern, one at Grammar and one at Public School. I think we all came out with about the same academic qualifications. I went to the local Technological College to do an Art Foundation Course, and my brother followed on and did exactly the same as me. He now works in landscape architecture but had to study that separately after years of working for a builder. My very first job was part time. I was 18 and had just finished A levels and I spotted an advert in the local paper for a job in the halls of residence at a local college. This was for one of the London University Colleges who took in foreign students over the summer holidays. My job was making scones and providing afternoon tea for these overseas students. It was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had! I only earned about £10 a week. I was still living at home with my parents in Woodford Green at the time. It was just a holiday job so as long as you could bake scones and make a cup of tea you were alright.
Art College and holiday jobs
I went to study at art college after the summer holiday, but for the next three years I fitted in holiday jobs. I worked in an insurance office, and the Ponds Cosmetics factory. One of my jobs there was putting tops on ‘Go Deodorant’, and another filling tins of ‘Rinstead Pastilles’. We laid all the tins out on an old wooden table, put greaseproof paper liners in them, then on an old-fashioned pair of scales weighed out, by hand, however many ounces of pastilles were meant to go in the tin. With a big old scoop we filled the tins, put the lids on and stuck them up before packing them in cardboard boxes. Used to spend like a couple of days doing that and then we’d move on to something else. One funny thing they made was talcum powder for Africa. It was brown, not white. I thought it quite the weirdest thing we did in that factory. I never worked on the brown talcum powder line but someone said to me once, ‘Look, this is brown talcum powder for Africa, ‘and shook it out and it was brown. Another holiday job was at Lesneys’ Matchbox Toys. I left because I was getting a bit harassed. Being a student wasn’t always easy when working in factories where others took the mickey out of you. They took the mickey out of my sandals and held their noses and said they could smell cheese. Here I was put on the end of a line of Matchbox toys, and other operatives tipped all the metal pieces onto it, like all the little doors and bonnets and other bits of the cars. They tipped them out onto this conveyer belt that was moving down to where I was at the bottom. So the stuff all piled up at my end. I had two biscuit tins and had to put boots in one and doors in another. And this stuff was all over the place…they were obviously doing it very quickly! I had this mountain of parts, and it used to all pile up and then start going on the floor. And they’d all be shouting at me and telling me to get a move on. So, because I was useless at that I was put to work in the loading bay. Square biscuit tins full of all the parts had to be loaded onto a lorry. I was the only one doing it and everyone else was standing around watching. So I literally walked off and never worked there again. That was my little stand! I was still only earning somewhere between ten and fifteen pound a week paid to me in a little paper envelope. I had to clock in and clock out, and they didn’t have a canteen either! I remember taking a packed lunch.
After finishing art college I got a shop job in London for a few months near the British Museum in John Adams Street. Dryads supplied art and craft material to hospitals and schools for use in occupational therapy and psychiatric treatment. The shop is gone but you can still buy some things with that name on E-bay. There was cane for chairs, rug making and embroidery materials, all sorts of weird things for doing paper marbling and gold leaf, as well as leather for bookbinding. Judi Dench was one of the customers when I was there. She used to buy embroidery stuff, and I’d be very nervous trying to cut fabric for her. But she was really lovely, and would tell me not to worry if I went crooked.
Occupational therapy in the psychiatric hospital
Then I went to work in a big psychiatric hospital called Claybury in Woodford Bridge, in Essex, where my mum would go and visit patients. It was very sad with people from Tottenham, many miles away and not on a direct bus route. So people had been put in there to be forgotten basically. This was in 1967 or ’68. I was 21 when I started. There were patients who had been in there all their lives. I mean there were old ladies in their 70’s who, on their notes, had ‘adolescence ‘as their reason for being admitted. Also there were under-age girls who’d got pregnant and after having the baby had been shoved into this mental hospital. ‘Adolescence ‘or having a baby under the age 16 were obviously reasons for being in need of moral welfare! I think there were around about a thousand patients if not more in there.
There was one very sad man that I remember well who used to frighten people. His mother had caught syphilis, so he’d been born very deformed and mentally affected, and he had a very misshapen face. He looked quite scarily ugly and would always hang around the entrance. He used to frighten the life out of me when I first went there. But I soon realised that he was utterly harmless and very friendly. I worked in the Art and Pottery Occupational Therapy department. In those days it was a separate building away from the hospital, although there were other Occupational Therapists on the Admission Wards. I was in the Occupational Therapy department in the big grounds. So in these massive grounds the long term patients who’d been there for years and years had to take a five minute walk across from the hospital to the OT department, apart from one morning a week when we had to actually go over to one of the Admission Wards. For one of the closed wards, the lady patients would come over accompanied by grim warder-looking nurses who had keys jangling from their belts. It was always female nurses with the female patients, and the wards were single sex except for the Admission Wards. I always worked in this separate building in the grounds. Our job was to provide meaningful employment or activity for the patients. We also had to get them out of the nurses’ hair. These poor souls were in the hospital wards day in day out, year in year out and they came to me for art work or pottery. We used to do things with slip. We used slipware moulds and worked with molten clay. We’d pour it into the inevitable ashtray moulds which could be teardrop shape or other squarer designs. The teardrop ones were the favourites and they’d be for use up on the wards where they were always getting broken. Always a constant supply of these were needed!
We had a kiln and did a firing once a week and we would do slipware decoration by putting an object in to bake and then putting another colour over the top. There was a potter’s wheel, and some of the patients would throw stuff on to this to make pots. We also made slab pots which is where you roll the clay, cut out the shapes and stick them together with more wet clay. Pinch pots were made where you take a ball of clay, stick your thumb in and work round and round and round. All very therapeutic, just sitting there rolling out and making coil pots. The patients really liked making these. It was those repetitive movements that were sort of soothing, and it was quite easy, as if it collapsed it didn’t matter, you just started rolling out again. I once had a beautiful coil pot that one of the patients had made for me and I kept it for ages. It was just me working with the other OT but some nurses would stay when they came over with the patients, and nurses always came with the patients. We used to have groups of about 15, sometimes 20 so quite a lot and we both got very friendly with some of them. We also used to do art work with the patients. Up the corridor in the OT department there was a metalwork shop, a woodwork shop, and an industrial packing shop. There was also a Christmas cracker factory!
I would go round all these places and skive their waste material. There were big wooden oblongs with circles cut out, or sheets of cellophane and such like. We would make wonderful mobiles with these off-cut things, remember this was the 60’s and mobiles were very popular. We also used to do fabric printing. This was in the days of hessian so we bought loads of it. It was cut into oblongs, the edges fringed and then printed with lino blocks. These became place mats for the wards and we made lots of those. The patients particularly liked doing the printed place mats, and I’ve got a feeling that there were some shorter stay ladies who were on rehab, and one or two of them took their mats home. We made papier mâché fish where you apply wet paper over a balloon to make the fish body, and then use lots of tissue paper triangles to make the fins.
I also started an art club that met in the evenings and on a Thursday evening patients would come and do their own work. One lady looked like an old school teacher, something out of Miss Marple. She was well into her 70s when I knew her, and she would go off every day with a little artist’s box and easel under her arm and catch a bus. She sometimes went all the way down to Southend to do her painting. I still have a picture of hers. One or two of the others also went out as certain patients were allowed to go off site. The weird looking bloke I mentioned earlier would go down to the village to buy his fags and that sort of thing.
All this for the princely sum of something like £14 a week. But at the time I was very pleased with that and the perk of a canteen. After two years I went on to Hornsey Art College in Tottenham. to work as a weaving technician.
I had studied woven textile design at Art College, so I was quite well placed to land a job as a weaving technician. The School moved to Cockfosters and became Middlesex Polytechnic and the head technician was a man from Yorkshire who had trained in the mills. He knew how to work the Jacquard loom which was beyond me. It operated on punch cards and a sort of basic computer thing which he knew all about. I could thread up looms and knew the difference between the different grades of thread, and I also understood the ordering processes. I used to manage all the stock yarns, and would thread up the looms, because the students were always too busy. One holiday I got to weave a whole length of very fine silk in beautiful colours, and somewhere I’ve still got the ends of this. It was brightly coloured in a sort of check, but very fine. I did it on a Jacquard loom which was quite complicated to thread up. There may still be weaving technicians in schools. Anyway it was brilliant and I enjoyed it greatly! I worked there for about three years until I saved up enough money to go travelling, and then off I went.
Adventures in South America
I wanted to go to Argentina so I went on my own to see an old friend from Woodford County High School for ‘Gals’ who had gone over there to teach English. Her sister then joined her, and we went travelling together because she had to work. She is still teaching out there.
We travelled around for six months and it was great fun. Quite scary in places, but the best thing about it for me was the passage out by sea. On a French passenger liner. You could occasionally buy a ticket to go on a cargo ship, but this was a proper passenger liner which also carried cargo. It wasn’t one of those awful cruise ships as it was only two storeys high – upstairs was for first class and my level had the swimming pools but the hoi polloi visiting. I think we had to go downstairs for the dining and restaurant bit. I had to get an open return which was around £300 and it included all your food and wine with meals. It was fantastic French food served beautifully. It was the first time I’d had what seemed like umpteen course meals, but was probably only five. There were things like Brie and Camembert that I hadn’t really ever eaten before. This was in 1971, and I hadn’t seen such things and I was very, very interested in all this gorgeous cheese. The journey took over three weeks and we had the crossing the line ceremony and all the rest of it! I wasn’t seasick at all as it wasn’t rough going out. Coming back was a matter different though!
I stayed with my friend’s brother when I first arrived and then went on to my friend in Argentina. When her sister and I started travelling we stayed in cheap hotels. We had a guidebook called The South American Handbook, and that told us where all the cheap hotels were. We travelled by hitchhiking, train and the local buses. We only had one slightly scary event when my friend’s bag was nicked. We were boarding a train in Bolivia and she had gone back into the station to use the loo. Two men came near me and bent over shouting to friends outside my window, and when they went her bag had gone. When she came back and found her bag had gone she went absolutely mental and we ran outside and found the stationmaster. Funnily enough when we looked back into the carriage her bag was back. The passport was there, her ticket was there, and it was just the money in cash which was gone. Traveller’s cheques were still there but they’d had a good rifle through. Of course these men all looked very similar as they were all wearing ponchos and those hats with flaps. It forced us to be a lot more careful. We made sure we hung onto our bags after that. I’ve never, ever left anything untouched since then, and never will for the rest of my life. I sometimes travelled on my own by taxi. You could buy a fare for a taxi, say in Peru, where you just went to a little office, and according to the ticket you’d bought you had to sit in set places in the car depending on the type of ticket. There were three seats in the front, three in the back. That was a jolly good experience. I met a lady in a taxi who then invited me to stay with her just because she had a daughter who spoke English. So I stayed with them and also ended up staying with her son in Cusco. Very good times and quite an adventure. But coming back on the passenger line on my open ticket was not enjoyable. We were sailing through the Bay of Biscay when one of the stabilisers ‘went’ during the night. The boat was rocking quite badly … When I went down to breakfast there were only about four people in the restaurant car, all of whom were English. The foreigners were doing a dying duck act! (laughs) Again it was only English people for the lunch service, and I saw a few of them staggering out looking rather grey and ill. I wanted to go up on deck because I loved being out when it was rough, but I wasn’t allowed because it was too dangerous and the crew were frightened of me being swept over. The ship was lurching in a weird one-sided way and there were waves going all over the deck. That was an adventure.
Assessing needs for the DHSS – not the usual clerical job!
I was 26 when I arrived back in England and got a job with the Department of Health and Social Security and had a lot of training, loads of training, going on courses everywhere. I was a clerical officer assessing people’s supplementary benefit which for people who hadn’t paid enough National Insurance contributions. This was not the usual clerical job! These were people who were out of work, people who were sick, and what they used to call liable relatives who we were chasing for money. It was women who had been deserted by their husbands or the fathers of their children. They did get a liveable amount of money, not like nowadays when you can’t really live on benefit. We assessed for so much a week for each person, each child, then added on the rent or mortgage interest. Rates, water rates and whatever else one had to pay for were included, and then extras, like if a person were diabetic, or had TB they had extra for diet. If anyone was unable to move about they got heating allowances. A lot more generous than it would be now. And the other thing that was much better in those days was we used to give people money for things. If they didn’t have any savings they could claim for clothes for the children or clothes for anybody else in the family. My first job was to go and visit an old couple who wanted some new curtains. They said ‘We’ve just taken down the winter curtains and we want some money for summer curtains ‘(laughs). I’d never heard of summer curtains and winter curtains! We also used to give grants for fridges. We had arrangements with second-hand shops where we’d pay the money and they’d deliver it to the person.
I’d be going round to the houses and assessing what people needed. I would make the decision and although we only had to have just five O levels to do this job it was very responsible I think. The worst aggression I came across was when I was working on the counter. I can’t remember what the row was about, but she called me a ‘f****** w***** ‘ or something like that, and slapped me, properly whacked me in the face. She managed to get a hand over the glass between us. – she jumped up on her chair and hit me over the top of it. She got taken to court and eventually went to prison. I actually got damages through her prison earnings which was great.
At the Braintree Office we always have people on a Friday if their giro hadn’t turned up. There’d be all the ‘f***ing and blind-ing’ under the sun: (imitates) ‘I want my f***ing giro if not … . ‘ If their giro didn’t arrive they would literally plonk their children over the screen. We always had a supply of chocolate biscuits and sweets for the children who were dumped over the screen on a Friday. We’d phone up Social Services and the poor little b******’s would be taken off, maybe into care for the weekend. The social workers may have taken them back to their parents, but we just had to always make sure we’d got chocolate biscuits in on Fridays. Funnily enough I was never frightened.
I worked in Leytonstone, Walthamstow, and then the Braintree office. I then got a job as what they called a regional reserve throughout the DHSS, and I worked at all the different offices over the Eastern region. If there was an emergency like strikes I covered. I did the Ford’s strike, the firemen’s strike in Hertford, and the Golden Wonder crisp factory strike somewhere over Hertfordshire way. We would have crowds of strikers coming in and we had to do quick assessments. You’d have to assess the striker’s family’s needs and their rents. They should have been getting their strike pay hopefully, if their Union had money, but we would allow for the families and the rent and the rates and all that stuff. I bet they don’t get anything these days. I also used to go to offices that perhaps had got a load of people off sick or got behind on something.
I used to come to Bury St Edmunds quite often, and we’d be visiting families at Lakenheath and Mildenhall bases where Americans had got women up the duff, and they needed help. We would have to go out there and try to find the blokes to make them look after the girls! I never had any luck, because the powers that be would always say they weren’t there or the guys wouldn’t answer their door or something. It was scary going onto the bases because the blokes were there with all their guns and things. The servicemen got out of it as the Americans always sent them back to the States or to a base in Germany or somewhere.
I can tell you one really interesting case I saw when I was at the Braintree office. We used to have people living in weird places and we used to have to visit gypsies as well when they came round. There was an old tramp who was in his 70’s and he used to give us directions as to where he was living. He lived in a hedge in the winter, and locals used to say, ‘Park in so-and-so lay-by and look along the hedges for smoke, and he’ll be where the smoke is‘. But you had to catch him early in the morning before he got up and started walking about. He was literally living in a bivouac made out of fertiliser bags and old farm sacks, just sitting there with a fire next to him. Talk about dangerous! God knows where he got his water from. He’d have a kettle on the fire making a cup of tea, and he looked OK, he was chubby faced and not at all gaunt, thin or ill. He used to get his money sent to the local post office, so he had to trudge up weekly to Coggeshall Post Office to collect it. I can’t remember what he asked for … clothes or suchlike, but we used to give him money for whatever he wanted. I remember giving him money for boots once. I mean, poor man, he didn’t want to be housed, he was a tramp and he liked wandering about. We used to have regular tramps that would travel round and go from office to office. I suppose they hitchhiked but I don’t really know how they did it.
We used to have to phone around the other offices as if we paid out at Braintree we’d have to let Chelmsford and Colchester know. Say we paid Billy Bloggs so-and-so, he might then get a lift to the next office and say he hadn’t had any money for three days! A tramp would be allowed so much a day, but our tramp, the one who lived in our area, because he was a pensioner got a weekly amount. He was eventually found with frostbite and the nice thing was that people were good and caring towards him. And obviously the post office he got his money from would chat to him also. He voluntarily went into an old people’s home for the winter because he got frostbite on his feet. He’d then come out and tramp again for the summer before going back for the winter. He went in once and eventually ended up there full time as he’d had enough of frostbite I suppose.
The gypsies who used to travel round always came back for certain jobs at certain times of year in certain places. We didn’t really see the gypsies, only the old gypsy grandma that we would go to and visit to give her the money. She was travelling round with them and that was fascinating! I had no idea that the gypsies were very much like Jewish people with bowls for this and bowls for that. I went to visit one afternoon and the women were in the caravan and the men were outside. The men were always outside fiddling about with their dogs or whatever they were doing. All these dogs would come running up but they would never go for you so I was never bothered by them. You had to take your shoes off to go in the caravan, it was gleaming, it really was. The amount of Crown Derby and the cut glass crystal in there along with everything else! You didn’t want to look too much but it was all very beautiful.
It was said that they washed certain parts of their body with different enamel bowls. Nothing to do with religion but everything to do with their clean way of living. They washed their bottom in one bowl, their top half with another, and their feet in yet another bowl. Of course they had no baths so they had to have wash-downs. Their caravans were those gleaming modern ones and absolutely spotless. I never saw anyone in the old wooden gypsy caravan. There were all those sorts of frilly mats and glistening gold trimmings and sparkling ornaments. I never remember seeing children, always the ladies. Perhaps they kept them out of my way. The ladies wore lots of gold earrings, chains and rings and they were always very polite. They all spoke like those ones on ‘Gypsy Wedding‘. I don’t know what that accent is but it’s not the Irish thing. It’s more of a twang that they had and that was very interesting.
And there was another poor man who lived on the A11 between Ugley and Quendon. He lived in the woods but was looked after by a lady in the house opposite. He was only a young man and he lived in a hut in the woods. Someone I met recently told me he just died in the hut. He used to get his supplementary benefit and did what he wanted to do. Whether he was happy or not is immaterial.
So it was a very interesting eight or nine years. I felt quite satisfied that people were getting what they needed. It used to occasionally worry me when I knew people were obviously on the fiddle, but I was more worried that people weren’t getting enough. I used to visit some poor old souls. There was one old woman with literally light coming through her roof, and I remember getting in touch with Social Services as she was in an old tied cottage. It was a weatherproof, clapboarded Essex cottage and obviously tiles had slipped. She had lived there probably since her husband had started work or since she got married, and really didn’t know any different. It was a tied cottage so the landlord couldn’t push her out, but he made her uncomfortable in order to get her out that way. So she left and got re-housed by Social Services. You couldn’t really put pressure on the landlord but you could get someone re-housed.
I also worked in London based at the Shoreditch Office, working round Hackney and such places. The only time I was ever attacked there was by a little yappy dog that bit my briefcase, my ER briefcase! This little dog got hold of it and I was sort of shaking it and it wouldn’t let go! That dog was hanging solidly on! And the old woman whose dog it was came out with a basin of water, tipped it over the dog, and it let go! (laughs) It was the only time I got close to being attacked. I never had anyone there attack me, they might have been a bit rough but you can usually get round people. It was a good job and it was also quite well paid for those days. I worked for about nine years in all for the DHSS, right up until 1980 when I left as I was expecting but I eventually ended up at the Diss office. I left work to have my four children, and then went back to work in 1992.
Occupational therapy at Hellesdon
I went back to work again as an Occupational Therapy assistant, this time, at the Yare Clinic. When I first went it was older people as well as the young, from the age of 17 up to the 90’s. After a while it split into adult mental health and older person’s mental health, but in those days it was all the same. It was an acute admission ward where people were assessed. They’d probably stay there for up to about three months, by which time they were either discharged or sent on to Hellesdon. Maximum three months, perhaps a bit less but usually two to three months. In those days people were admitted for all sorts of things. I mean we had everything, from people with anorexia, to drug addiction, alcohol problems, depression and psychosis. Hellesdon had about three different admission places then. I was still working there when they got rid of the real long-stay ward where people had been probably since they were teenagers. So there were people in there for the long term, and then medium long term patients also. When I worked later on that ward after my training, some of the people who had been in the Yare Clinic where I’d been working during my training were still on it. The Yare Clinic was where the Julian Hospital is now, and in those days of course the Julian wasn’t there, it was the old West Norwich Hospital TB ward. Anybody with a mental health issue would go via the Yare Clinic before they went to Hellesdon. Depending on where you lived I think The Yare was people living out in the country, like Grebe House is now. But we were the country … because I remember quite a few of our people came from Dereham.
I then did three or four years at the Yare Clinic, before I went to the UEA. to train to be an OT. It was a bit of an eye opener working at the Yare Clinic after 12 years of not working because I hadn’t really seen acute, only one or two at Claybury. The patients I got to know better at Claybury were younger, those who’d been involved in drugs. But at The Yare the acute psychotic ones were like the long term patients on the wards, and they were so far gone and a bit too ill by then so you couldn’t really have much of a conversation with them. As an OT assistant I helped with all the activities that went on. We started off the morning with Keep Fit, and then we had a programme of activities like the craft morning when we did everything from enamelling to lino printing to marbling. They even dug out some old horrible tray bases to do basket making with. The patients only came along if they wanted to do it, so they were given the choice and it was all voluntary. We set up things like concentration groups where we played various games to stimulate their memory and their process of thinking. One of my bright ideas was to play Stations.
You all sit, with everyone on a chair in a circle and one person in the middle. There’s only chairs for the people who are sitting down. Everybody takes the name of a station, including the person in the middle and everyone chooses their name to be a station. When I used to play this in London it was always underground stations, but in Norfolk it can be Old Buckenham, Attleborough or whatever. The person in the middle has to say ‘Old Buckenham and Attleborough ‘, and Old Buckenham and Attleborough had to change chairs, and the person in the middle has to try and get in a chair before one of those sat down. So therefore you’ve got to remember everybody’s station name because you’ve got to work it all out. It’s easier to call a station near you and then you can slip into it and make them cross with somebody over the other side. You’ve got to remember and think. Unfortunately we were playing with old people as well as the young, and some patients got quite rough and would push each other out of the way. It never got aggressive, nobody got cross with each other as we used to be laughing too much to get cross.
The qualified people, the nurse therapists, ran closed therapeutic groups. Sometimes the OTs got involved with these but I was only an OT assistant so I used to help with the more basic stuff. I’d be baking scones with a load of patients down the kitchen. If people needed it I would assist with physical things, dressing and suchlike, but the nurses would have probably helped with that stuff. We were more involved in running activity groups. I remember doing some agoraphobic work with a young man who couldn’t go outside. We would sort of walk outside one door and in another, that type of thing with him, and then eventually I would walk with him into Norwich. It was a bit difficult because he couldn’t step on the cracks in the pavement or the paving. There was another man for whom it was leaves, in the autumn he couldn’t stand on the leaves. Phew, that was difficult!
One of the old ladies who used to come on the ward regularly, she’d be backwards and forwards, ended up in older persons. She was a very difficult woman for me as an unqualified OT. She used to be really aggressive to all the nurses and used to hate them all. She used to say they were all trying to kill her by poison or injection. She also had this phobia about ants coming out of plugs. But she used to love coming cookery sessions, and I’ve got her recipe for pineapple cake. So whenever I knew that she was back on the ward I’d go and have a chat with her and she’d say ‘Ooooh I remember you, you used to do Keep Fit ‘. We used to go through all the things we’d done together with the cooking. She once reminded me as I’d forgotten, that we’d gone down to Colney and picked strawberries, and came back and made strawberry jam.
We had an Indian lady with us who never spoke to anybody, and never did anything useful. She would walk round the ward and spit everywhere, and everyone was worried because she had hepatitis B. But she did come along with us and also picked a load of strawberries and then made strawberry jam. Very rewarding. We did cooking one day a week and had a proper, decent kitchen. There was also quite a nice canteen in Hellesdon, because it provided the nurses with proper meals and tea and stuff but the patients also used to go in there. And then later, when I was an OT cooking was always a really good thing to do, and with the men in particular. Making bread was the best thing to do with blokes and boys whatever was wrong with them, usually alcohol or drugs. I remember one man pushing a table right across a room, kneading the dough so hard, and I laughingly said ‘we can’t get out the door! ‘ all the while thinking, I’m not really scared! (laughs) And he said ‘oh yes, sorry! ‘ and then heaved it back. One lovely story I must tell was when a boy was making bread, but he wanted to make pizza, so we made pizza! He’d got this wonderful pizza going and his dad was coming to visit him in the afternoon, so we made one for him and one for his dad. And when his dad arrived he’d brought takeaway pizza with him because he knew his son liked pizza! (Laughs) So it was really sweet. By this time we were getting male and female mixed wards. Even the long stay wards in Hellesdon were mixed so it was all different. And I had mixed genders coming to my groups.
Training to be an Occupational Therapist
So we now had an OT department and an OT degree course had just started at the UEA. I had to have maths GCSE, which I had to take separately, and then I had to do an ‘ology ‘. I spoke to the Head of the OT School at UEA and she said, ‘just get an ‘ology ‘. Well, there was biology, but that was three days a week, and it wouldn’t fit in with my part time work. I wanted to study psychology at City College as I only did three days a week work and it fitted in really well. But I decided in the end to go for full time training, which was good because I got more money than I earnt! From 1995 to ’98 trainees got money from the grant people, the Department of Health, to train and because I had three dependent children it was a maintenance grant. My ex-husband occasionally paid me, I had part time jobs in the holidays, and I also went back in between times and worked as an OT assistant. Hellesdon knew I had left for training and they were quite happy to have me back. That was marvellous! I’d never been so well off and I enjoyed the training. The older ones on the course seemed to enjoy it more than the younger ones. About a third were about 30 plus, and I was the oldest. I was 49 when I started and 52 when I qualified. So I left it a bit late but I really loved it and greatly enjoyed my placements. I only got two mental health placements One was in child psychiatry, and I did a spell at the Bethel. I also did my elective in the old age mental health community.
I loved it so much that I told another OT assistant who worked at Wayland Hospital about it. She was also on her own, a single woman and was a brilliant OT assistant. I mean when you think about your future and all the rest of it I said to her ‘honestly, you really ought to come and train. So she did. I think she has still been the oldest one, because she was about fifty when she started.
My dissertation was on ‘How does diabetes affect your life?‘ It was just nice to interview people to see how they coped living and working with diabetes. I have Type 1 diabetes. I was quite young, 30 when I got it, expecting my first baby. It affects your social life up to a point. For my whole life, when I’m going out mid-morning I have to stop for a drink, a biscuit or a cup of tea. It goes back to the days when I was on twice daily insulin. You have to have a drink and a biscuit mid-morning and that’s always stuck with me. I feel quite faint and peculiar if I don’t just stop for coffee. I don’t know if it has affected my work but I know I have to be very organised. I would never skip meals and I would never work long hours. And I didn’t have to drive long distances without food whilst working. I always keep glucose tablets and muesli bars in my car! But some people just used to work all day long, go for visits without stopping for a drink or eating, and it probably made me a bit more sensible to think about stopping. My employers have always been sympathetic to that and have never given me a hard time. I just say, ‘I’m stopping because I need to.
I did have one rather dreadful experience though. My workmate went and told tales on me, and I was then stuck in the office for a few weeks. I had gone to visit an old man in Dereham, a poor old boy who wasn’t very well, and I thought it was just going to be a quick visit. Pop in and it would take ten minutes. But I was in a daze and was on insulin that had to be taken half an hour before my meal. So I had my packed lunch which was luckily in my bag. I gave myself my jab in the car and went in to see this poor old chap who was really in a state. He was ill in bed and the home carer hadn’t arrived to give him his lunch. So I went to get him his lunch but his kitchen was crawling with ants. There was sugar down between the fridge and the cupboards, and I had to pull things out and clean it all up. Well, by the time I’d done that I made myself and him a drink. I sat down to have my drink but passed out. He was in bed in another room and I was in his sitting room writing up my notes. I’d had my drink but fell asleep before eating my packed lunch. I came round and then went to see if he was all right and he was fine. So I then had my lunch, saw he was all right, cleared up and went out. Like a big mouth I mentioned it to one of my work colleagues (it was a bloke actually but he was a real old woman) who reported me to the head OT. It wasn’t as if I was driving funny! I’d been sitting in a chair, passed out, come round, and didn’t upset the poor old patient. He was all right but they made a right fuss! It didn’t matter and it was quite good as it meant I could cycle to work for a few days and save my petrol money. ‘Cos you had to drive in case you had to go out and visit people. I was still in training at that time.
Wayland, Plumstead and Hellesdon after training
I did a stint at Wayland and one at the N & N, working with dementia patients, amputees, and mental health assessments. Then I went on to the dementia ward at the Julian Hospital more or less as soon as I finished Uni. I went in June, started on the ward early and did nine months on there instead of the usual eight month rotations. There were at that time two wards with about 25 or 30 on each. The patients came in on assessment. It was yet another acute assessment ward. It’s for people who’ve been diagnosed, or who you just can’t cope with at home, just like my Mum. Or they have some crisis, like they’ve been found wandering. They are assessed mainly to see if there’s any management or medication that can help them. Some might go home with a bit more help, or a care package of some sort. Others went into a home, usually, towards the end of their stay, as it was a fact that they just couldn’t safely be managed at home especially not with an elderly carer. They would usually stay for four weeks minimum but sometimes, if they were difficult to place up to six months. I was doing all sorts of assessments, washing and dressing assessments, home assessments, and home visits definitely. I did these and also activities during the day and again it was a very rewarding job.
There was one very lovely lady. She didn’t come to groups much because she never spoke. So I sat down with her, and we had these cards and photos – photographs of famous people. I didn’t know who the hell they were but I’d say ‘do you know who this is? ‘ and show her the photo. And as I turned it over she’d say ‘oh it’s Ivor Novello who wrote We’ll Gather Lilacs in the Spring ‘ and she would start to sing in a screech (imitates ‘We’ll gather lilacs in the spring ‘) She would grab hold of me and start dancing me round the sitting room singing ‘We’ll Gather Lilacs ‘! I mean, I didn’t know what it was or anything but it was really great! So we did sometimes do singing, and we started doing more. We had these old time songs, like John Peel and Ash Grove and all of the old wartime ones. ‘Tipperary‘. And we used to bring her along to that, and although she’d never speak, never say anything, she would always join in the singing. And often it would set people off and they’d start dancing. She would light up. It would be like a switch turned on, and it’s amazing the things that would spark people off!
I had other brilliant little lightbulb moments with many at Little Plumstead Hospital – the people there had learning difficulties, they were mainly older people so they’d been like that for donkeys’ years. But one I remember well was when I was on a basic grade rotation where you did eight months at different hospitals until you got your permanent job. A bit like doctors doing rounds specialising in different things.
I worked at Little Plumstead but also had to go down to what had been Hales Hospital near Loddon. They were sheltered bungalows and we did what they called sensory work, and I hated this! I would do a seaside reminiscence morning where I took along buckets and spades and flags and those mould things you filled in to make sand shellfish and crabs, and shells and stones. And the patients were all sitting round the table, but there was this one man who always used to turn his back to me and wouldn’t talk. I started, ‘we’re going to talk about the seaside and I’ve brought some things along ‘. I had my bucket and spade, you know those nice old tin spades with a wooden handle! All of a sudden this man lent over, grabbed the spade and said ‘I remember ‘ and started speaking! And he talked about holidays at Hemsby with his parents and the donkeys. He carried on talking quite sensibly and you could understand everything he was saying. It was so amazing! The staff there were saying ‘he’s talking, he’s talking, talking! ‘ And they were all coming and looking in because he was actually talking! And I thought. I’m so glad I’ve seen and know how important reminiscence is for him ‘. I mean music sometimes does it to people and they’ll start crying or something. But to have him actually start speaking about his holidays in Hemsby that was a thing. It was the clue so people could then know what would get him going. I
I didn’t find it sad working with dementia, I quite enjoyed it. I found it fascinating ‘cos I used to like working with psychotic patients. It’s quite the same really as they’re in a bit of another world. And the patients were just so interesting. One man I worked with had been in Burma. And he used to act out this garrotting. He didn’t have anything in his hand but he would walk round and go up behind people as if to attack them from behind. He never hurt anyone but it was really strange, and you couldn’t have a proper conversation with him at all. The poor man. He did also have a very unfortunate habit and that was eating his own poo. And because of this he used to smell! His breath was so bad and you should have seen the dirt under his fingernails.
One of the funniest times was when a very solemn family were being shown by the doctor into the small sitting room at Hales. And they were going in very slowly and very seriously, but you’ve never seen people fly out of there so quickly because my garrotting patient had put his poo in all of the flower pots in the room. That really was the grimmest thing I ever came across. So it was just fascinating really, working there. I did three years training and then eight months rotation after that which is a bit like the first two years in medicine.
Wayland Hospital was one of the best hospitals in the country. It was a very specialist amputee place. The Friends of the Hospital had raised money and had a special purpose gym built with special parallel bars and all the rest of it. The whole ward I was placed on was amputees. Sometimes it was only a toe off here and there, but other patients came in after operations. It was also a rehab for people, but as it was amputees, they were sometimes in there for a long time. We had to order the right wheelchairs for them and sort out their mobility issues. It included very young people sometimes. There was one poor man who’d been run over on the Attleborough bypass, and he’d managed to hop across the road afterwards but had left his leg behind. Just amazing! And he lived in a caravan so you can imagine how difficult it was to get him sorted.
Luckily patients were always issued with wheelchairs, but obviously whether that worked for them was another matter. Initially they didn’t get their artificial legs until some time after surgery, but nearly everyone was finally given an artificial leg. This man was given an artificial leg quickly and so he said he wouldn’t need a wheelchair although we had to issue him with one anyway. He had to come up to the West Norwich to be fitted for the artificial leg and then had to practise using it and all the rest of it. It was a very long process. I didn’t help physically with things like learning how to walk with an artificial leg as that was a job for the physios, but I did help them to get around without a leg or in their wheelchair. They’d be sat there in hospital, with the nurses running round doing everything for them although they did have to learn how to dress themselves. So I used to do dressing assessments but they learned ever so quickly to do that! I then had to help them manage for themselves about their house, doing the washing up, learning how to fill a kettle with only one arm. First of all you get everything down to their height and find out how far they can reach in a wheelchair. You bring everything down and put things in the underneath cupboards. Very practical down to earth stuff. And then we would do cooking and they’d always make their own tea and coffee and wash up afterwards just to get used to doing things. So we did a lot of basic stuff and a lot of garden and plant work. And then of course the biggest strain, especially for the elderly, was learning how to push themselves in their wheelchairs. We had one lady who couldn’t really get on with her artificial leg, so she stayed in her wheelchair. They had to take the wheelchair down to the gym for her sessions with the OT and the physio. And then for their lunch it was up a long slight slope back to the canteen, but nevertheless uphill, and she had to push herself uphill. Nowadays they go into an upstairs ward at the Community Hospital, where there’s no gym and no slopes. I don’t know how the patients ever learn as they’re in and out within a week. There’s no long term rehab for the patients like we used to do. They were issued with NHS wheel yourself chairs, the ones with big wheels that you push yourself. We didn’t have electric for them and presumably you can’t get an electric wheelchair on the NHS even now. So it was very hard work for them, especially when you’re frail and live in a house and don’t ever do anything and have a husband or wife who will run after you. We had another man who lived in a flat off Old Palace Road, and he had his friend to look after him. His friend said to me ‘he won’t need no wheelchair. I’ll help him up the stairs. ‘ So he literally hopped up the stairs and the friend carried his wheelchair. I don’t know why he never got on with his artificial legs but some people just didn’t get on with them.
The worst thing I found when working with amputees was the smoking. There was a very young patient of mine, a chap, I suppose he was probably in his thirties, perhaps a bit older but he looked about in his thirties. He smoked very heavily and that’s one of the no-nos for being an amputee. I don’t know whether he’d had an injury but he started off with a bad toe and he eventually had below knee and then above knee amputation. Another year went by and I heard he’d come back, because he was in this time for a bi-lateral amputation. He ended up having the worst you can get, both legs right off at the hip because they kept getting infected and poisoned. And when the OT. went to do the home visit – he was living over in Lowestoft or Yarmouth – she said to me that you could hardly breathe in his flat because the whole family was there and everyone was smoking like chimneys. It was thick with smoke and he smoked continuously. If you wanted to find him he was always in the ‘smoke room’. It was such a warning.
And then I also worked for a spell at the N & N in cardiac rehab and respiratory medicine. I was on the chest ward a lot of the time, and one afternoon a week we did a cardiac rehab group at the West Norwich Hospital It was for people who’d had heart attacks and they’d come for a series of about six weeks where we’d have talks about different things including diet, exercise, the biology of the heart and what caused your heart attacks. We held an exercise circuit where they would do all these exercises. Each person was assessed as to how many star jumps, for instance, they could do, or if they could even do star jumps! There was a static exercise bike, running on the spot for so many seconds or minutes, and these various equipment stations round the gym. I had to do it as well hence I was very fit in those days! And then after all that we did relaxation. One technique you could do yourself, like just talk yourself through ten down to one. Start with your head and work down, relax yourself, like if you’re standing in a queue or sitting in the car. And then just relax. It was very good, but a lot of the men were younger blokes who were very into all the science behind this thing. ‘Oh you get relaxed sitting watching telly,‘ they’d say and I’d go ‘no you don’t get in the same state you need to be in ‘. It’s a state, a bit like one up from hibernation where you’re very level and your blood pressure drops. Anyway we had blood pressure monitors and they were strapped on to their wrists just to see if the relaxation worked, to see how far down their heart rate went. Well, they were absolutely staggered by how much it dropped. So they used to take the taped relaxation workouts to do at home. And it really did help people. You had to be a bit careful because one of my favourite techniques was imagining colour emanating up throughout your body. Well you can’t do that with psychotics! I could never use that in mental health. It’s just not a good idea. But I did different ones every week for six weeks. And then there was the guided fantasy one. You just went out into the garden with them, kicked off your shoes and sat down in a deckchair strewn with cushions. Then you would get up, walk across the grass and imagine walking down some warm stone steps to the beach, across the sand and look at the sea. Then you would stand and watch the waves, turn round and come back. You wouldn’t walk any further and definitely not right into the sea. That was a lovely relaxing one. And actually sometimes if I can’t go to sleep I start doing that one myself, and I never really get beyond the warm steps onto the beach.
So ’98 is when I qualified and I had done these three rotations for Dementia at The Julian, Wayland Hospital, and Plumstead. I then went on to Ward 14 at Hellesdon. This was people with long term mental health problems. It’s a rehab ward, and was very interesting. We wanted to get people into flats, out into the community or into their homes. There was one poor boy who was put in one of the hostels in the grounds at Hellesdon and unfortunately we didn’t have much to do with these patients. The nurses had to deal with them, and the nurses’ idea of rehab was to get the patient in the car, drive him or her down to Asda and bring them back. And of course this poor sod, as he was living down at Drayton could walk down to Budgen’s and buy a ready meal. But we’d been doing a lot of cooking with him and he’d been making pancakes, pizza and cakes and all sorts of things. So there’s me asking him ‘what sort of thing would you like to cook? ‘ And then the nurses go and undo all that by encouraging him to get ready meals. But if we went to Asda, we’d always walk down there and only get the bus back if it was raining, because we knew that the patients were never going to get enough money to drive and afford taxis. He was also overweight because he liked his food, so the good thing was I walked with him from Hellesdon, down the back road to Drayton, and then back along the main road. Partly because it passed the time but he also needed to lose weight. I do know that it probably gave him an appetite!
Changes in the Occupational Therapist’s role
I certainly had a varied time but the system gradually changed. The Hellesdon OT department was done away with. One of the last jobs I applied for there was in the mental health community, where most of the teams had an Occupational Therapist. Then I changed consultants and applied for another job with the other consultant, and I think I was called a Mental Health Community worker and had a certain grade. I could have been classed as a qualified nurse or an Occupational Therapist or a psychologist. But you weren’t called an Occupational Therapist, you were just an Occupational Assistant. Although my approach was different from the nurses, I was actually employed in the Occupational Therapy department which was then closed. The nurses took over and it was all run a bit differently. Occupational Therapy had been run by the Head OT at Hellesdon, but then as it all went into the community teams all the long term wards were closed down and people were moved out into the community.
There is only an acute admission ward as far as I know, and there’s one OT on that ward now and that’s it. One acute admission ward now for the whole area, whereas there used to be three. I applied for a community job and I ended up doing OT for older people, assessing people in their homes. Trying to help them stay at home, that kind of stuff. And I enjoyed doing that. Why are there not more in the community? Well, there are Occupational Therapists but they’re not called that, they just generally go and assess people in the same way as the nurses do. In my time the GPs would write into the consultant and say, ‘Mrs Brown’s really ill, she’s getting up in the middle of the night, she’s hitting her husband, she doesn’t know who he is, blah, blah ‘. So I or a nurse would go round and assess her, and work things out .. and if we thought the doctors needed to see her for medication you’d flag it up for them. You were reviewing and monitoring but you could hand things on to your assistant if there was ongoing work needing to be done with someone else. I had one assistant who took her dogs out to see people and then walked her dogs with their dogs if they’d got dogs! People who just needed training to go on a bus for instance needed one person to work with them, which is much more of an occupational therapy thing, but they couldn’t spare me because I was meant to be a higher grade assessing the more acute people. So people who needed ongoing work trying to get used to going into Norwich on the bus would be helped by one of the assistants. The system worked quite well if someone was acute as you could get them in somewhere.
I would probably have done a bit more with the person like planning their whole week, all their activities. In a way it’s a shame, but as long as things got done and the patient was dealt with I always used to approach people in an occupational therapy way. I met one old woman just before I retired, who in the past used to like knitting. But all she used to do was sit there smoking herself silly. I thought well, she needs to be doing something. We would go through all the stuff that she could do, so she started knitting again and started off by knitting loads of squares and sewed them into a blanket for Romanian orphans. She then started making baby clothes and I was so pleased with her. Obviously I wasn’t asked to go and see her every time to get her knitting again but it just came up because I realised she needed something to do. The nurses had to be more focused on medication and I didn’t know all that much about medication. I was always wondering what the patients did with themselves all day long or what they were eating. How did they manage to get their meals, and who helped them with their shopping? I was still into all of the basics. I talked about gardening a lot, growing mustard and cress on flannels on the windowsill was vital. Do you remember doing that? I worked for probably five or six years before I retired at 61. I did it for quite a long time, didn’t I? I still remember the blotting paper and old bits of papier mâché.
Carolyn (b. 1940) talking to WISEArchive on 15th August 2011 in Norwich.
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