Dare to care

Wherever she goes, Kirsty's smile illuminates the room. Photo Jack Bennett.
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Kirsty Porter’s passion for community aged care is changing the lives of dementia patients across Melbourne. Jack Bennett reports.

Dementia sufferers, their families, school children and volunteers reminisce about bygone times. They exchange tales, belly laughs and a hot beverage in the company of 30-50 others. The ‘memories table’ embodies this vibrant setting – lifestyle magazines from the 1960s, Fosters beer coasters from the 1950s, Invincibles cricket memorabilia and miscellaneous board games.

Memories form the crux of Kirsty Porter’s Umbrella Dementia Cafes, a dementia support program she describes as “multi-generational, community minded and holistic”. She effortlessly glides around the room, greeting patrons with spirited smiles, warm hugs and expressive hand gestures. This is Kirsty’s quest in life, as she describes it, to destigmatise dementia and to reengage through activity-based learning in a social context. 

Kirsty grew up in Shepparton, three hours north of Melbourne. “I came from a domestic violence background. Nursing for me was obvious, I was a carer for my younger siblings and I had a big caring role in that family,” she says. “I went to England when I was 23 and I tried community nursing, high dependency nursing, I did corporate nursing, a lot of consulting work and I worked in hospitals but it wasn’t great. I didn’t love it.” At 26, her perspective changed while working in a UK nursing home. “I realised I had a sense of belonging and I saw nursing as something else, I didn’t see it as medical, I saw nursing as social,” she says.

After returning to Australia in 2009 with her husband Chris and young family, Kirsty was alarmed by the corporatisation of the aged care sector. “It was too much about money and not enough people to care for these residents. We were so rejecting, so stigmatising of elderly people,” says Kirsty. She describes a typical nursing home in a somewhat sombre tone – outlining the stark dichotomy between aesthetically pleasing foyers and corridors to isolated, downtrodden patients served in understaffed, ill-equipped facilities. 

After a few years working in aged care facilities in Melbourne’s east, Kirsty enrolled in a postgraduate degree in aged care management. “I’m a curious person,” she tells me, thus explaining her desire to explore the intricacies of Australia’s aged care funding system. “I didn’t think we needed to throw more money around to fix the problem, rather, we needed to change the way we saw aged care as a country,” she says. The system, it appeared, had run its course, leaving Kirsty at an existential crossroads. 

“In 2015, I was so upset, I didn’t know where I belonged. I couldn’t understand myself and how my personality and background in aged care would come together,” she says. “I didn’t know how I could put my personality together with nursing and my history of violence and lack of belonging.”

While visiting her husband’s family in England later that year, Kirsty stumbled across a newspaper advertisement promoting a dementia cafe garden. “I didn’t know what that meant, so I thought maybe it was served by people living with dementia. I was curious to find out,” she says. Her curiosity provided the catalyst for her visit to Pabulum Dementia Cafe in England, where after meeting with the owners, she decided to create a similar program in Australia.

Kirsty took her new knowledge and perspectives back to Australia, launching a website to track innovations in unconventional aged care programs across the globe. After a few months of quietly blogging, Kirsty met Phil Simpson, a chaplain at Blackburn Primary School who delivers sermons at the local One Community Church. While she was initially reluctant to start a dementia cafe program of her own, Phil believed in her potential to create an immediate impact. 

Dementia patients explore their artistic side with primary school students. Photo Jack Bennett.

“I told her not to worry about that and to grow it organically,” he said. “Let’s set a date, set a venue, and do it. She had an incredible enthusiasm and drive and all the big ideas but she just needed a push in the right direction. I booked a room at the church for her and a date, and I told her she’s got nothing to lose by giving it a go,” Phil said. 

After weeks of letterbox, word-of-mouth and newspaper marketing, Kirsty’s vision to redefine community aged care in Australia came to fruition. Her first Umbrella Dementia Cafe, held in October 2016 at Blackburn’s One Community Church, was embraced by a large cohort of volunteers and students from the local primary school. “Most of my volunteers were mums and dads from the primary school and people from the church,” she says. “Everyone in the community really embraced it.”

Her intergenerational approach has eight-10 students visit the cafe sessions, engaging dementia sufferers and their relatives in art, music and horticultural activities. “The child has no idea that anyone’s living with dementia, all they care about is the amazing conversation they’re having with this older person,” she says.

2018 was her ‘breakthrough’ year, winning the Victorian Government’s Pick My Project initiative after successfully opening a new dementia café at Koonung Cottage, a small community house in Melbourne’s east. Kirsty received funding to open a further two cafes, one at Box Hill South Neighbourhood House and another at Bennettswood Neighbourhood House, with a fifth café in Rosebud about to open its doors in November.

When describing what she does, Kirsty says “we want to find a way to unlock each person so they come alive. Once you’ve connected like that with a person, you can create choice, empowerment, independence, engagement and connection.”