Sophie Jones was born on a horse drawn boat and spent her childhood and early married life living and working the canals of England. A lifetime later, she has been able to relive those precious memories with the help of the team at ExtraCare.
Sophie, now 91, and living with dementia, lives in Broadway Gardens in Bushbury, Wolverhampton. But she can still recall when her home was on the canals. She can remember lying on her back as the boat went through the tunnels, putting her feet on the tunnel walls to help it through.
"She can go along the canal in her mind and name all the locks all the way from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port," says Guy Page, Regional Manager for ExtraCare's Enriched Opportunities Programme®.
Guy and Balbir Gill, ExtraCare's EOP Locksmith at Broadway Gardens, have taken Sophie back on two special trips to the canals. In 2011, she went with them to an historic narrowboat gathering where she saw two of the boats on which she had had her children. This year Guy, who is a narrowboat enthusiast, took her on a trip on his boat along the Shropshire Union Canal where she used to work.
ExtraCare's award-winning Enriched Opportunities Programme® supports residents with dementia and dementia-related conditions.
The programme offers tailored activities for those residents with dementia-related issues, aiming to reduce the disabling effects of the condition. The programme is implemented through specially-trained support workers known as EOP Locksmiths®.
"The key for Sophie was finding her link with the canal and that has opened up opportunities to reminisce and give her those positive moments," says Guy.
Sophie was born on a boat at the Broad Street Depot in Wolverhampton. Her father worked a pair of boats using a motorised canal boat towing a butty (a boat without an engine) and brought food commodities from Ellesmere Port to the Midlands.
Sophie recalls being sent by her dad to collect a horse to pull the 'butty' up the 21 locks at Wolverhampton. She set off on foot at High Bridge Brewood and walked to Wolverhampton. She was supposed to walk the horse back to meet the boats at the bottom lock. Sophie rode the horse back, bending down below the horse's neck as she rode under the bridges.
During the war Sophie recalls how they transported sacks of sugar. Occasionally the boaters would 'liberate' a little sugar from some of the sacks using a fine tube, exchanging their 'perk' with the local butcher for a Sunday joint.
Sophie had four of her ten children when she lived on the canals. But she did not want them to miss out on schooling and so when her eldest child was six she left the boats to live on the 'bank' allowing them to benefit from the education she had never had.
She worked as a cleaner and four years ago she came to live at ExtraCare's retirement scheme in Bushbury, Wolverhampton.
"I think Mum has always missed the boats," says her eldest daughter, 68 year old Ivy Billingham, who also lives in Wolverhampton. "She still talks about the boats regularly."
Helping people to remember their early life is an important part of the work that the ExtraCare team do with people living with dementia. "Reminiscence is very powerful," says Guy. "Sophie and other people living with dementia have a good recall of distant memories."
Guy's lifelong passion for narrow boats has meant he has been able to talk to Sophie in depth about her experiences. He brought her an original windlass key which was used to work the locks. "She knew immediately what it was and demonstrated how you would you would use it. She was so excited," he says.
Last year Guy decided to take Sophie to a narrowboat gathering at Braunston in Northamptonshire. She couldn't believe her eyes. Her face lit up with joy, she was so happy.
"It was absolutely amazing watching her," says Guy. "It was a brilliant day and she became quite a celebrity."
Sophie's flat in Broadway Gardens is immaculate. Through her determination her children all had a good education. And on her mantlepiece she keeps pictures of her grandchildren receiving their degrees.
Picture: Sophie with Balbir Gill on board a narrowboat.
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