When Sandra Blockley’s husband Charlie was diagnosed with dementia, the couple found a lifeline in their local dementia cafes in Rotherham.
“I knew nothing about dementia, but I found everything I needed in those cafes,” says 77-year-old Sandra. “As well as being a place where we could find support, it was somewhere we could go to meet like-minded people and, importantly, have fun.”
One of their favourite aspects of the cafes, which are operated by national adult health & social care charity Making Space, was the entertainment.
“They couldn’t afford to have people every week,” says Sandra. “But the weeks when they had a performer were by far and away the best times I had with Charlie. As soon as the music and singing started, his face would light up. Feet would tap, shoulders would sway… It was magical.”
When Charlie passed away in 2017, it was never an option for Sandra to stop visiting the cafes. “I just said, ‘That’s it, I’m staying as a volunteer,’” she says. And, as well as continuing to attend as a volunteer to help others, she threw herself into fundraising to pay for regular entertainment.
“There’s a lot of money raised for research, which is essential, but you can’t underestimate the impact of fun for people living with dementia,” she continues. “That’s why the memory cafes are so important: they’re full of people smiling, laughing and socialising.”
Sandra is no stranger to fundraising. Together with Charlie, the couple raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for good causes following the tragic death of their daughter Lorraine from cervical cancer, aged just 19. “Lorraine was raising money for treatment that wasn’t available on the NHS, and she made us promise to carry on,” says Sandra.
Over the next 23 years, Sandra and Charlie fundraised over £750,000 for good causes: “We raised money for nurses’ training equipment, a project in Nepal that’s still going today, lots of things.” she says.
When Charlie passed away, Sandra turned her attentions to raising money that would directly benefit the people living with dementia who attended the cafes that brought the couple so much joy.
“When I go to the cafes and see how people react when the entertainment starts, it makes me so happy,” she says. “They can be in their own little world and then the music starts and you see them smile and then start to dance. You can’t put a price on that. I call them magical moments, and we need them every week, not every now and again. But it all costs money, so that’s what I’m focusing on.”
Sandra’s fundraising efforts have been so successful that she has had to open her own premises to sell all the donations she receives. In less than 12 months, she’s already raised £25,000 out of her target of £50,000.
“People come from all over Rotherham for a browse and a chat,” she says. “They know that when they come here they’ll always find a friendly face and a listening ear and can sit down with someone who knows what it’s like to live with dementia.”
Sandra has the help of her friends Elaine and Margaret and her daughter-in-law Keeley to run her shop, Forget Me Not on Green Arbor Road in Thurcroft. Despite these helping hands, she still has a 6am start.
“I’m quite slow in moving around because of problems with my legs, and I have a dog, so I start the day at 6am to make sure I have enough time to take care of my dog and make my flask of tea and some sandwiches to take to the shop,” she says. “We’re open from 8am every day, and we don’t stop until 2.30pm.”
At home, rather than put her feet up for a well-earned break, Sandra spends her time sorting through all the donations she receives, washing and cleaning everything ready to take to the shop the next day.
“Well, you have to have something to get up for, don’t you?” she says. “I know that I’ll be at that shop every morning, not because I have to, but because I enjoy it. And I know that other people enjoy it, and they come specially to see us, so I’ll be there.”
Sandra’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She’s been given multiple awards in recognition of her tireless volunteering and fundraising, including an MBE in 2006. She’s received five awards in the last three years alone, and has just won the national Great British Care Award 2021, for her services to unpaid carers.
“I was elated! I got a standing ovation!” she says of the ceremony.
But for Sandra, it’s not the applause that counts – although she is incredibly grateful for the recognition.
“I won’t be here for ever,” she says. “I want my legacy to be to leave enough money for Making Space to provide music, entertainment, activities and Christmas parties for people with dementia in Rotherham for at least 10 years. Ten years of magical moments.”
There are four Making Space dementia cafes in Rotherham: Wesley Centre, Maltby; Gordon Bennett Memorial Hall, Thurcroft; St James Rooms, Wath-upon- Dearne and Dalton Parish Hall, Dalton. For more information contact the Making Space team in Rotherham on 01709 910889.