Letters to Nonna: Gloria

This letter is part of a series, ‘Letters to Nonna’ written by Sam Meikle.

 

Dear Nonna,

You’ve always told me that you can tell a lot about a person by their eyes – and as you can see from her photograph here, Gloria’s eyes radiate warmth and kindness.

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I met Gloria by chance at a hospital I was visiting in Manchester, which is about five hours drive northwest from where I live in London. We only spoke for ten minutes during her lunch break, but our conversation still stays with me. It filled me with hope, but also a little worry.

Gloria works as a hospital housekeeper. Her job involves ensuring the hospital wards are clean, safe and attractive for people receiving care there. When we think of a traditional role of a housekeeper, we might just think about cleaning and tidying, but for Gloria, this was just a small part of it: “I love working with people. I love people”.

Treat them as normal and don’t let them feel that they’re different from anybody else.
— Gloria

Gloria shared her belief of making sure people are OK when they were in the hospital and they are treated well. She told me, “whatever their condition is, you have to make it look as normal as possible. Treat them as normal and don’t let them feel that they’re different from anybody else.”

I came away feeling hopeful that there are people like Gloria, who notice the little things, like making sure a patient can reach their drinking water and their phone is near them so they can keep in touch with loved ones. These are the little things that matter and make a difference to people.

At the end of our conversation, I asked Gloria what working at the hospital had taught her about people. She replied, “oh there are so many different characters - you learn a lot about people. Some are very nice. Some are not very nice. And you have got to be the person to be able to cope, with them. Whatever their personalities. So it taught me a lot really. If somebody’s not very nice, you have to cope with that. If somebody is nice, that’s a bonus.”

This still makes my chest feel tight thinking about her words now. That somebody treating her nicely “was a bonus”. I can imagine your face and response when reading this, ‘that’s not right Samantha. It only takes a second to smile and say thank you.’ I know you believe that even though we might be feeling sad, or scared, or in pain in the hospital, we should always treat each other nicely.

I’m not sure what the answer is for people to feel this way too? I worry that sometimes we can get so caught up in systems and process that we forget it’s all about people at the end of the day. How can we support staff to keep connecting with the reason many of them started: their love of people? How can we support patients and members of the public to see staff as people too, not just a uniform? How can we always treat each other nicely, even in some of our darkest moments of needing care?

I know the answers to these questions won’t immediately appear, but truly - meeting people like Gloria makes me feel a little more hopeful that the answers aren’t very far away.

As always - I’m thinking of you Nonna, and hoping that this note finds you well.

Much love,

Samantha xx


Who is Nonna? You can find out here

Who is Nonna?

Nonna means grandmother in Italian. So, Nonna (pronounced Non-nah) is my grandmother.

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I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with her when I lived in Brisbane, Australia. She would always graciously humour my requests to “PLEASE PLAY WITH ME NONNA!”.

Now aged 93 years old, she still lives in her own home. She does her own cleaning (“they wouldn’t do the floors like I do”) and potters about in her garden with her prized roses (some 30+ rose bushes, with a few being half a century old).

Her grace, strength and resilience never cease to amaze me. She moved to Australia from Italy over 63 years ago, “not with one word of English”. She and her husband raised four children in Australia while working on their own farm. He died unexpectedly, 45 years ago now. She continued farm work to ensure all four of her children went through university.

Nonna chooses to see the goodness in people and her wish is for people to be happy and to look after each other. Her best days are when all 23 family members are together in one place (eating!).

Nonna is the only one who calls me ‘Samantha’, as this is my “proper” name. She pronounces it 'Sa-man-ta'.

 

Why ‘Letters to Nonna’?

Over the past two years, I have spoken to many wonderful people who give and receive care. Their stories have made me laugh and made me cry.

I have never been sure of how to best share their words of wisdom and their remarkable stories.

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But, whenever I shared them with Nonna, either on the phone or sitting around her kitchen table in Brisbane, I found my words came more easily.

These Letters to Nonna are the kind of conversations that we would have together around her kitchen table.


What matters (beyond, what is the matter)

Yesterday was one of those wonderfully serendipitous days. It was sunny in London and the city was in a good mood, as was I. Instead of catching a bus home after my meetings, I walked along the streets of London. I walked past boxes of blooming spring flowers, past crowds of tourists with their wide-eyed wonder at this great city and when I came to the front door of Royal Society of Arts, I stopped. And went in. To their library.

Now I couldn’t tell you why I decided to go into the library. It was the first time I’d been inside a library for 15 years. But I’m glad I did.

Design like you give a damn

Walking alongside the shelf stacks full of books, a brightly coloured cover jumped out at me, “Design like you give a damn”. I picked the book up and quickly became absorbed.

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I was captivated by the collection of inspiring architecture projects from around the world, compiled by Architecture for Humanity. Sadly, their website isn’t live anymore, but this amazing group of architects set out to create practical and ingenious design solutions to address the need for basic shelter, housing, education, health care, clean water and renewable energy.

Over 15 years, they brought together a two million person network globally to literally build change from the ground up.

Until his mother-in-law showed up

One story in this book caught my eye. An architect was recalling the time he went to meet a man at dawn by the water’s edge in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka in 2006. They were there to talk about rebuilding the man’s home after the Tsunami.

The man told the architect how he had lost 17 members of his family and how six months of endless paperwork, land issues and burials had followed the Tsunami. He was sure that all remained in the world for him was his daughter.

Until his mother-in-law showed up.

The man said to the architect, ‘I didn’t like her before the Tsunami and now I have to live with her’. They both laughed.

Together they designed a ‘granny flat’ in the sand – a separate structure to the man’s simple house. When they finished their discussion, they hugged as the sun rose. The architect went off to design the man a new home, with a granny flat.

It would have been entirely reasonable for the architect to design the home the way it was before the Tsunami – and he would be right to say he “did his job”. Instead, the architect listened to the man’s story and designed a new home for what mattered to this man.

What was the matter with this man? He needed to rebuild his home after the Tsunami.

What mattered to this man? Having space to live independently from his mother-in-law, while still caring for her in his life.

This story made me think of stories I’ve recently heard about health and social care professionals who are doing things differently; making small changes that mean a lot. Small changes that matter - to the people who are using their care services.

Cream tea in Torquay

Maddy runs a new Wellbeing Team in Torquay, South West England. Instead of using a ‘time and task’ model of care, her new team is co-designing care with people on what matters to them.

Maddy shared an experience her team had with a woman they recently started care for after the woman was discharged home in a taxi. Through genuine conversation (without paper and pen, Maddy notes) they talked about what mattered to this woman and they found out how important the woman’s garden is to her.

It saddened the woman not to be able to look after her garden the way she had all her life.

In addition to providing care and support for this woman during the day and at night time, the Wellbeing Team are now looking to arrange gardening services.

They also found out that the woman’s family are coming to visit soon, from America.

So together, the woman and her Wellbeing Team are planning a cream tea for her family in her treasured garden. Everything from compiling a shopping list for all the goodies, to ensuring the groceries arrive, to getting ready for the big day. Because it matters.

What was the matter with this woman? She needed help at home as she could no longer manage the day to day by herself.

What mattered to this woman? Having a garden that she enjoyed and was proud of - and sharing this pleasure with the people that she loves.

 

“It meant I felt empowered in my own care”

Last year, a young man spoke with us about how he had suffered from his mental health for over seven years. He shared his experiences in mental health institutions and how he struggled to be well or connect with his therapists.

It was incredible to see how his language, posture and energy levels changed as he spoke about his passion in life: art. With quiet confidence, he described his rich collection of work about his body, his mental health and relationship to self.

What this young man found difficult to put into words, became easier through his art.

Everything changed for him when one therapist took a different approach to their therapy sessions. The therapist used the young man’s artwork as a focus point for their discussions.

This young man shared how this small action made a big difference to him:

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“Finally working with a therapist that understood that using my artwork to explain my difficulties helped us both to move forward. It meant I felt empowered in my own care”

What was the matter with this young man? He had severe and enduring mental health needs.

What mattered to this young man? His artwork and being able to express himself in ways beyond words. 

 

Bringing the humanity back into health and social care

At Spark the Difference, we ignite passion and possibilities in people, to bring the humanity back into care. What do we mean by ‘humanity’? It’s the little things that add up to make a difference – the conversations, the cream teas, the use of artwork. It’s the empathy and the respect that come from taking the time to listen and understand.

It’s about what matters to people. Beyond seeing what is the matter with a person.

How do we do this?

We listen to people’s stories about their experiences of giving and receiving care. We then work in partnership with community members, care professionals, commissioners, researchers and policy makers to identify common themes, problems and solutions within these stories.

We’re looking for the little things – the sparks – that can add up to make a big difference to people. These sparks, the themes, problems and solutions, can then inform changes to service design, or to local, regional and national programmes and policies.

Bringing more humanity – more of what matters to people – into health and social care.

What we're working on now

Inspired by Helen Sanderson, we’ve started sharing more about our current projects on our NOW page. We'll be updating this NOW page at least once a month and always welcome feedback and/or a chat about ideas, improvements or possibilities to work together.