Along with shaving and haircut, this barber friend of dementia offers "a little bit of dignity"


Lenny White with the dementia patient Tom Jackson, 82, at Hadrian Park Care Home in Billingham, UK (photography: Stuart Boulton)

At 17, Lenny White worked in an assistance center in her native Northern Ireland, washing dishes and serving food. He found that he had a talent for talking to patients with dementia.

"I liked working with them and entering their world," he recalled. "They said," I'm only 30 years old "or" I want my mother. "I would say," Your mother will be back soon ", you would not say" Your mother is dead ".

Even after growing up and becoming a marketing consultant, he never forgot how good it was to talk to dementia patients.

Two decades later, after divorcing, he took a barber class. A friend who worked in a nursing facility hinted at how there was a salon for women there, done in pink, but nothing equivalent for men. So White decided to do one day as a man.

He wore a barber's wand, wore an old-fashioned barber's apron and sprayed the room with a lemon-scented cologne. He lit the music of Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, and a group of men was brought to cut their hair.

They loved him.

"The staff noticed a big difference," recalls White of that day, just over two years ago. While the music was playing, he chatted with the men and walked away. Some who had been agitated relaxed and touched their feet. The word spread to other care facilities, and so White, who lives in Bangor, Northern Ireland, became Lenny the Mobile Barber, traveling to the UK and beyond to deliver an old hot towel and a cut of hair to men with dementia.

Research has shown that people with dementia respond well to stimuli like music, especially if they are familiar songs of their youth and to visual cues that appeal to their youth.

White's outfit now includes a portable jukebox loaded with old and a barking robotic dog and is a big hit with the men. (Some have mistaken him for dogs they knew as young).

He talks while he stops, asking where they came from, what kind of work they had and what their old barber was using. "It's very different to have a man who cuts a woman's hair," he said. "You can have chats between men and men".

"It's all a multi-sensory experience," said Rhonda Robinson, a living manager supported by the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust, which includes two dementia facilities in Northern Ireland. "It's very therapeutic for our dementia clients, even those with very difficult conditions."


Barber Lenny White with Trevor Morrow, a patient with dementia at Kingsland Care Home in Bangor, Northern Ireland. (Photo courtesy of Lenny White)

White has men come into a group, which mimics the camaraderie found in a real barber. "They are recovering their young days when they are sitting and waiting for a haircut," said Robinson. Sometimes they sing or dance music while they are waiting.

"See the smile on their face," Wendy Carleton of Greyabbey, Northern Ireland, whose father, a retired farmer with dementia in the frontal lobe, received haircuts from White. "It gives them a little dignity".

With dementia, moments of fear or confusion can creep in. When it happens to one of his clients, White lowers the music. "It's Lenny," he will say. "You're fine, I'm your barber, I'm just here to give you a haircut." Sometimes he holds the hand of the man while he cuts his hair, or touches his shoulder to reassure him.

When he leaves them, their eyebrows cut, the nose and hair of his ears cut, the smooth and bright cheeks of aftershave, he feels relieved. "I know I made a difference in their lives," he said. "It could only be half an hour, but that half-hour will set them up for the rest of the day, they feel good about themselves for the rest of the day."

White said he was in touch with the men he cut his hair, and he encouraged the inevitable return visits when he discovered that some of them had gone. At one point he hit him, he said, "I'm their last barber."

Once a year, White brings his dog and his barber across the Atlantic in New Jersey. For those trips, bring CDs of traditional Irish songs.

"I've been in the industry for a long time, and let me tell you, it was breathtaking," said Renee Chimento, a lifestyle director at Chelsea in Montville, an assisted living community in Montville, NJ, where White visited a few weeks ago. "He does it from the heart, people feel it."

Now he bought a lemon-flavored cologne. And when the regular barber of the structure arrives next week, "I want to make sure you play music".

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