A few weeks ago I met Bijan and Medhi*, two Iranian ex-pats. Fascinated by the power of the Internet, they were keen to share some of their youth with me. After a quick flutter in Farsi, which I’m sure they think I understood, they wanted to look at the works of Hafiz, Persia’s most treasured fourteenth-century poet.

Bijan, still with a heavy Tehran twang to his English, told me that his father had attempted to read all of Hafiz’s 495 Ghazals to him. A Ghazal is a poetic expression of loss and separation, and the beauty of love. When I asked him which verse he remembered the most, he closed his eyes and recited this to me:

“ Fortunate blessed youth, listen to the old wise soul.

جوانان سـعادتـمـند پـند پیر دانا را

Tell tales of song and wine, seek not secrets of the world.

نصیحـت گوش کن جانا که از جان دوست‌تر دارند ”

  Hafiz, Ghazal Three.

Bijan and Medhi are both retirees and members of The Bradbury, in Kingston. Usually they only converse with one another, in Farsi, and occasionally with some of the other men who attend the day centre – rarely to women. When I walked over, shook their hands and sat with them, I thought that they were friendly as always. Nadia, a fellow Year Here Fellow, who has been working at the Bradbury for two months, told me afterwards – “that was the first time I’ve seen them talk to someone new.”

Obviously it was my charm and youthful charisma…perhaps not.

Nadia and I discussed afterwards that it is most probably because, in more conservative eastern cultures, men and women don’t socialize very freely outside of the family setting. This is why Nadia noticed this interaction in particular. All of this, learned from taking a step back and attempting to understand the individuals we were dealing with.

It was after spending a day at the Bradbury, and spending time with some of their members that I realised that this personal understanding, and connection is vital in any human relationship. This is especially important when dealing with the elderly – because as we go through life we become a lot more complex, and as we get older we have less people to share this connection with. This episode was a huge breakthrough in my understanding of age and isolation. Something so glaringly obvious is indeed something so important.

This happened a few weeks ago, but it is only recently that I have been able to connect the dots and apply this lesson to my placement with Care UK. You see, the Bradbury is an active day centre for the elderly who are all very mentally aware, and this shines through in the conversations that go on there – fourteenth-century Persian literature being one of them!

At my placement however, many of the residents suffer from dementia. In a nutshell, this is short-term memory loss, which presents itself in over 125 different ways. There is currently no cure for this. It leaves most of its victims in a state of perpetual confusion. The level of care needed by such people is totally different to that of the Bradbury users. But why should the level of personal understanding go awry because the people are not able to express themselves for you to develop such an understanding?

Over the past two months I have learned and observed more than I could ever have expected. Medically, clinically, and legally, the care systems in place are spot on, adhering to government specifications and care industry specialists. I have learned however, that this is not enough for the individuals in care – what is missing is the human connection.

The care environment is a very stressful environment, and those working in the profession are chronically under-recognised for their work. Their work is governed by routines, regulations and restrictions – rightly so – however, this is where the human connection is lost, and residents, patients, and members become another task to deal with on the never-ending list. This creates an element of accidental apathy towards recognising the existence of the individual in care, and disengages the elderly from human connection – isolating them. However, unlike Hafiz’s Ghazals these people cannot express their loss and separation. This is a void that only human connection can fill.

To improve the lives of the elderly we really need to understand who they were before they entered a care setting. Just because they are at the end stages of their lives, it does not make them any less valuable as a part of our community than anyone else. In fact it is the total opposite, they are the most valuable members of our society, they have lived long, rich, and exciting lives. We can learn a lot from this. Life does not grind to a halt when you get old; the elderly have a huge part in shaping our futures.

So take some advice from the fourteenth-century, and listen to the old wise soul, engage with the elderly and reshape the way you think.

*The names have been changed for this post.