Every so often in this job I come across an initiative that really stands out from the crowd. Cocktails in Care Homes is a great example: I only hope the parties are run in the care home I end up in – they sound enormous fun!
Cocktails in Care Homes is run by intergenerational arts charity Magic Me, which for over 25 years has been bringing together older and younger people through the arts to build stronger and friendlier communities. The initiative was started in 2010 in response to care home residents telling Magic Me that evenings were the loneliest part of the day as there are so few visitors or activities going on at that time.
“We currently run parties in nine care homes in five London boroughs,” says Project Manager Phoebe Grudzinskas. “Each of those care homes gets a party once a month, and a couple of times a year the ‘Themes Team’ organise special themed parties which tour to each home. In the last year we delivered 91 parties, with 368 residents and 305 volunteers attending.”
Each party is organised by two volunteer party managers, who liaise with care home staff to arrange drinks, nibbles, music and decorations and arrive on site half an hour or so before the party to set everything up. On the night the party – which runs from 6-7.30pm – has a team of up to 10 volunteers, whose main role is to socialise and chat with residents. All the volunteers undergo a period of induction training, which includes some exercises in communicating with people with dementia.
Phoebe started as a volunteer for the project in 2012, coming to the role of Project Manager in January this year. One of the key things for her has always been the transformation of a space within the care home. “We really work on changing the atmosphere, adding new faces, voices and laughter, but also small things like putting tablecloths on the tables, putting flowers out, having snacks, putting music on quite loudly, bringing along wearables – hats, feather boas, or silly moustaches, for example – which allow a place in the care home to be transformed,” she explains. “So even though the residents aren’t physically leaving the care home, the fact that there are new people coming in and we’ve transformed the place makes them feel like they’re in the pub, or at a cocktail party – somewhere a bit fancier!”
Phoebe’s favourite story is about one resident who really didn’t like being in a busy space, but the care staff realised she had started leaving her door open when the parties were on. “Although she wasn’t actually in the space we had transformed she was still part of the party because she was choosing to listen to the music and the laughter and the chatter. For me that’s as special as having a resident who turns up every month on the party evening to have a drink with the volunteers.”
The parties are beneficial for everyone involved, not just the residents: the volunteers, care home staff and visiting relatives all get something out of it too.
“Relatives come in and see their mum or dad interacting with other people, and the resident gets to host their relatives in a room that’s really vibrant and full of people, rather than in their bedrooms. One family member said, ‘It’s just like going down the pub with my Dad again,’ which is lovely.
Care staff are encouraged to join in, although as they’re on duty they’re not allowed any alcohol. “Whether they’re having a little bit of a dance or just getting to see the residents in a different light, I think that’s really nice. And the residents get to see them in a different way too,” says Phoebe.
As for the volunteers, it’s a good experience for them and helps to change the stereotypical perception of what a care home is like, she says. “They realise a care home can actually be a really fun place, and that’s important for us as well.”
So what are the most popular drinks on the party circuit? “Well, gin & tonic is a favourite,” says Phoebe. “And we’ve got a group of lads in Dalston who love, love beer. Our volunteer party managers change the cocktails monthly. Prosecco with a juice always goes down well, so like a Bucks Fizz or
similar made with perhaps a raspberry purée. White wine spritzers are popular, and again in Dalston Baileys goes down really well.”
The cocktails are made up in jugs, so they’re easy to pour, and there’s always an alternative mocktail available alongside the alcoholic version.
There are very clear guidelines about how much alcohol people can drink, and this is strictly monitored. “We generally recommend one to two drinks per person, whether they’re a resident or a volunteer, and we work with the care staff to monitor alcohol intake. We also work with the care staff in terms of knowing what residents can and can’t have, because of medication or conditions such as diabetes, for example,” explains Phoebe.
Each care home has a large plastic box and a lockable cupboard where all the equipment is kept between parties, and where the alcohol is stored before the party begins. “We provide glasses, decorations, straws, cocktail umbrellas, ice boxes, bottle openers and other bar equipment,” says Phoebe. “We wash it all up at the end of the party and put everything away.”
Until this year the Cocktails in Care Homes parties have been funded by donations from individuals and corporate partners as well as charitable grants from trusts and foundations, but now that the project is expanding – it’s being rolled out to six more care homes this year and there are plans to grow it outside London too over the next few years – a charge is being introduced. From now on a figure of £60 per party will be asked, making an annual cost of £660 (each care home gets 11 parties a year – they’re not held in August).
“A lot of the residents who take part in the project have been used to having a drink as a social occasion for however many years, and just because they’re now in a care home it shouldn’t mean they can no longer do that,” says Phoebe. The initiative has been welcomed by the care homes who are already taking part and Phoebe sees no reason why that won’t continue to be the case as Cocktails reaches out to a wider audience.