August 10, 2020

Robert Speker: Bringing Joy to Residents

Seniors dressed up and posing to recreate iconic album covers — the idea that earned Sydmar Lodge Activities Coordinator Robert Speker worldwide media coverage (CNN, NPR, etc.). On Voices, he describes bringing this idea to life, and shares how housing operators can boost residents' spirits during lockdown.

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Robert Speker has been in the Care Industry for 11 years, having formerly worked for a different charity supporting people with learning difficulties, before advancing into his current role as Activities Coordinator at Sydmar Lodge 5 years ago. Robert has used his vast creative and entrepreneurial experience, dating back to childhood when he sold sweets to his classmates for a profit at school, through his side-line university business “Bertie’s Bagels”, selling and delivering bagel treats 24 hours a day to hungry students to his current role where he educates, inspires and enriched the lives of the residents at the care home in innovative and “out of the box” ways.

Audio Transcript

Robert Speker 0:00
I have made sure I get to know the person as well as possible. And you can never know enough about the individual. So each day I try and learn something new. And that's either speaking to them, speaking to their families, speaking to my colleagues to see if they've found something else out, because all of that helps in my role to be able to help the individual.

Glennis Markison 0:33
Hi, I'm Glennis Markison from HappyCo. Welcome to Voices where we feature fresh perspectives in multifamily. The industry is now facing a fundamental shift in workplace dynamics, resident experience and business operations and Season Two Voices will feature multifamily leaders who are actively embracing change. Our guest today is Robert Speker, Activities Coordinator at the Sigmar Lodge Nursing Home in Edgware, England. Robert has worked in the care industry for 11 years, and he recently gained worldwide attention plus media coverage from NPR, CNN and other major outlets over an activity he planned for Sigmar seniors that involved famous album covers. I'll leave the story to him. Today on Voices, Robert will discuss ways housing operators can plan activities that make residents feel connected and hopeful in a time of social distancing. We'll also cover best practices for activity planning, from promotion to feedback. Thanks so much for joining us on Voices, Robert.

Robert Speker 1:37
Thank you, it's great to be here with you.

Glennis Markison
So before we discuss how COVID-19 has changed the nature of your work with seniors, can you give listeners a sense of why you were drawn to the role at Sigmar Lodge in the first place?

Robert Speker
Yeah, well, I kind of fell into caring and into the care industry. As a teenager, I used to do things voluntarily. At university, I actually visited a care home once a week to play the keyboard for the seniors there. And so I enjoyed doing that. It was a nice feeling I got, I saw that the residents at this care home, whilst I was at university, enjoyed themselves and I interacted well with them. I often used to relate very easily with the seniors. But again, it was nothing at university that I thought I'll be in the care industry, even after university, my degree had nothing to do with caring. And even after university, I was working in various fields again, that were not anywhere near the care industry, and it was when I moved to London, I had been studying in Birmingham, I originally come from Newcastle upon Tyne so I gradually moved down the country, eventually making my way to London and I kind of fell into a job of being a care worker at a pretty small care facility for eight men with learning difficulties. I really fell in love with the job. I not only fell in love with the individuals I work with, I just fell in love with the aspect of caring for somebody who needed a bit of help, needed a bit of support, was perhaps vulnerable. And I could give something as a job. That was something I felt very lucky about. I could go home every evening, having known I've had a little impact on somebody else's life and made it maybe a bit better in some way. And it was also the aspect of, in this line of work, every day is very different. And especially when you're working with people on such a close level. It was something that I really appreciate that I could form bonds with all of these individual characters, they're amazing people. I really just loved my job from the moment I started 11 years ago in care. And then after five and a half years, I thought I'd go for a change and go to a different level. And that was working with the seniors and the elderly. And again, it was a different aspect of care. However, it was something I just again fell in love with, especially because with seniors, you're dealing with people, unfortunately at the end of their lives, but realizing they have had incredible lives for many, many years, they've done all different things. They've lived through all different times, had amazing experiences, and you can learn a lot from all different types of people, especially the seniors. So my role at Sigma Lodge, again, it was not expected, but again, I fell in love with being able to make people laugh, entertain people, try and enrich their lives. And I feel very, I suppose it's a beneficial feeling that they're not really, I feel selfish saying it, because I feel very lucky and humbled to be actually working with these people so closely.

Glennis Markison 5:21
Yeah, I mean, it's just so lovely to hear that you take so much meaning from your work and you really strive to give back and I'm curious, that before COVID, you obviously centered on in-person activities at Sigmar, so can you describe, you know, how you thought some of those up and really the responses you got when people could connect in lively ways in person?

Robert Speker 5:39
Yeah, so I have a basis, it's one of our mantras about person centered care. So knowing each individual, seeing them as an individual, treating them as an individual, and you can only really know about somebody and how to treat them once you get to know them. And that was the most simple boredom thing in my 11 years in care. I have made sure I get to know the person as well as possible. And you can never know enough about the individual. So each day, I try and learn something new. And that's either speaking to them, speaking to their families, speaking to my colleagues to see if they found something else out. Because all of that helps in my role to be able to help the individual. And it is a case if you don't know them, well, you can't actually help them to the full potential. So I spend a lot of time getting to know people, hearing them, listening to them. Their backstories are really exceptional, some of them. There was one lady in particular, who worked in the Cabinet Office and the War Office during the Second World War. And her story was a phenomenal story. And again, you just wouldn't know from looking at it. A 90 year old woman, you wouldn't know unless you talk to the person. And that is the main thing that I try and do to make sure that then I can find out what they are all about, and provide them with activities that are really catering to their actual needs and their history.

Glennis Markison
Yeah. And so can you describe a few of those activities? I mean, were there marching bands, were there, you know, field trips, just a couple of those ones that definitely involve people congregating?

Robert Speker
Yes. So it was, it was finding out, for instance, a lot of them were trained as secretaries and they all went to the same secretarial school. It's quite a famous one called Pitmans. So it's finding the links with the restaurants also where they got married, where they had their wedding reception, and where they had their wedding photography. There was a famous wedding photographer in London called Boris and everyone needs to have a bond. So one of the activities I've done is getting them all to provide their wedding photo and giving them an opportunity to talk about their wedding. As an individual, I, hearing this story, I found out from family members and themselves. So I know a bit of information as well if they're not comfortable to speak, but it links up often with other residents who will say, Oh, I got married there, or I had a photo taken by the same photographer, and then you realize there's a connection between people, which you'll often find, and it makes it much more personable, and it makes it a much more entertaining activity.

Glennis Markison
Yeah, no, I don't doubt that sounds really, really fun. So I'm curious too, I mean, these activities sound like you're at the foundation of them, making people feel they have a story and they are heard. And I think often, isolation happens in a senior housing setting where people feel that nobody wants to listen and nobody does know them. And so I'm curious why is it so important to keep seniors engaged with activities to prevent that kind of isolation?

Robert Speker 9:04
Yeah, I just feel another mantra of mine is use it or lose it. A lot of the seniors are very capable of doing a lot of things. But when they come into the care setting, usually for their own safety, everything seems to be done for them. They don't have to cook, they don't have to clean. They don't even have to choose what they dress. Somebody else is there to do it for them if they don't want to. But I try and encourage them to do things for themselves. Even something as simple as getting a glass of water. I try to encourage them to actually walk over to the water fountain and do it themselves. Not because I'm too lazy to do it. I want them to see, well, they're still capable, so they never have to wait for a glass of water. They now have to never have to wait for somebody to get something for them if they're able to do it. They can do it themselves. And it gives them a sense of empowerment, that they are still useful, they can still do things. And that runs through everything I try and do, to try and make sure that they realize that although they're in the latter stages of their life, there's still a lot that they can do, whether it's things that they used to do and they still want to do, I try and provide that opportunity. And I also try and find things that they've always wanted to do, but never had the chance, and trying to create something that they've always wanted. So there was a lady who she said she wants to go to the west end to where all the theaters are, and see 42nd Street, so I got in touch with the producer, and he was in Hong Kong, and I explained her backstory, and he was very generous and gave her front row tickets and we travelled to the theater and then we were lucky to meet the star of the show, Lulu, outside afterwards. And it's just a chance to make some dreams come true no matter how old they are. I think age, it’s the classic, age is just a number. And it really is.

Glennis Markison 11:17
Yeah. I mean, creating that sense of wonder for people I'm sure is so, so moving for them. And I'm wondering, I mean, when COVID started and you had to go into shutdown mode, it was probably really easy for everybody to feel like everything good, that kind of activity, had been taken away. And so I'm curious, how you were able to flip the switch in your own head and really start to feel hopeful that you could still make light for people even as the times grew dark.

Robert Speker 11:44
Yeah, well, I'm always a glass half full person. Awesome thumbs. I say, well, the glass is half empty, however, that means you've got the opportunity to fill it up again. I feel everybody really should be positive, who's living, you can always take some form of positivity from the worst situations. We've seen that from history, whether it's learning something good from a bad thing that's happened. And it's also, the fact is every cloud does have a silver lining. So you've been locked down. I don't think many people, especially parents, for example, will ever have the opportunity to spend so much time with their children again, and I felt, I must say, slightly jealous that I was still working as normal. Because a lot of my friends were at home with their kids, I'm sure they would have swapped positions with me, especially with homeschooling, but it is the case that life changed, but you could take some really amazing things everybody will remember this time for the rest of their lives. It will probably change everybody forever, and everybody will have stories from this time. And a lot of those stories can be positive stories. Because we should be able to take good things out of this, the fact that people have come together, a lot of people have had more time to be able to do more charitable things. We've had a lot of offers from neighbors, family members, further afield from strangers who want to do anything they can to help the people in this home because they know they’re isolated, and they just want to be able to do anything. And we're amazed that this lockdown in this pandemic has actually created a lot more love in the world. It sounds, again, cliched, but it is actually true. People do care. And it's a really lovely feeling.

Glennis Markison 13:52
Yeah, no, that is remarkable. I mean, I think that stance is really what obviously is driving with the album cover idea, that we're very soon to hype and describe, but just before we get there, can you talk communication for a second? I mean, when you first had to tell seniors that, you know, they may not be able to be close in six feet for quite a while, can you describe how you conveyed that message and some of their responses, but the ways that you made sure to stress, you could still help them feel connected.

Robert Speker 14:19
Yeah, I'll always remember the meeting that we had with the seniors. So I was in discussions with my manager for two days before we actually went into lockdown on the 12th of March, we were caught. We were one of the first homes to actually go into lockdown. I had friends in Italy, who were telling me how bad it was there. So I kind of knew and even at that time, a lot of people in the UK were still not aware. They thought maybe it wasn't going to get that bad. Until you're actually living in the pandemic, you cannot really gauge how bad it could get. So it was the case of trying to plan it very quickly. Our family members who visit, they visit regularly. Every day some family members come and see their loved ones, and that stopped within a few hours of us making the announcement. And then we gave an opportunity for those families who could come to visit one last time because we knew there was no end date to that. And then it was a case of speaking to the residents as a whole, and it was very difficult because firstly, I had to use the right terminology and also try not to make it as negative as it could possibly be, to say that you're not going to see your family members for some time. I couldn't even tell them how long and it was just to reassure them to make sure that they didn't have any concerns, to make sure they knew this was for their safety and everybody was supporting this decision to make sure they were safe, their families were safe, and all the staff was safe, and it was one of the most difficult things I've had to do probably in 11 years. It was something totally unprecedented. I never ever expected I'd have to have that conversation with them, but they all took it very well. It was something that they grasped, they understood they couldn't avoid the situation because it was all over the TV. It was all in the newspapers, everyone was talking about it. We were shielding them slightly because everything seemed to be so negative in the news, but straight away, they've got an amazing spirit about them. I think it's because they've lived through, they say, harder times than this. They feel, you know, when they’ve lived through the Blitz and World War Two in London, where bombs were dropping around them, and a lot of them have stories of very near misses where windows were shattered, or they had to leave their families and as children, moved to the country, they've all got memories of that. So this is something they kind of took in that stride, which I thought was an amazing thing for somebody of that age to do.

Glennis Markison 17:29
Yeah, I mean, I'm curious. So you've been talking about media coverage and the way that they were already hearing some bad things about what COVID was doing and the way they might have to change their life for quite a while and their families were, and so now I want to talk about what you did to unbeknownst, to earn you worldwide media coverage. So I want to break down this album cover idea before we really get into, kind of, best practices around activity planning and the different audiences you can help people serve. What did you do that got the world's attention, Robert, let's get into this. How did you come up with the album cover idea, who did you cast, talk about the makeup and the reaction, please.

Robert Speker 18:06
So it was because lockdown provided me with more time than I've ever had to be able to provide activities, and it meant I had to think very differently about activities, and also provide a lot more activities because of this extra time. As I said before, the family members visit very often, so often they actually get in the way of activities. I can't get them to do something because they are actually there, so this meant I had this opportunity. It was something I thought about for quite a while. I thought Oh, I'd love to really do this little project, I think it'd be really fun. I think the seniors would find it very fun, and it was a case of choosing some iconic album covers that a lot of people recognize, either because of the artists, because of the design of that album, and then suggesting it to each person, this is what I'd like to do. Would you like to be involved? Every single person luckily said yes. Yay. And it was a case of finding time because they were still busy, they still choose when is a good time for them. Also meal times got in the way or they were enjoying their cup of tea. So once I got each one, it was a case of setting the scene if they required makeup. I had to plan any props like fake tattoos or even drawing tattoos on a 93 year old’s arms, and then it was a case of photographing a lot of photographs to make sure it was right. Lots of prompting, just move the right hand, the third finger on your right hand just slightly narrower, back a bit, forwards a bit. They would laugh because of these instructions that come out to the pose and we'd start all over again. So it was great fun doing it, they had a lot of fun because I could see the laughter. They really, really did well as well. They really listened to instructions, and they really got into the actual modeling aspect. They were actually amazing models, as you can see if you have a look at the photos, and then once I got the pose that I needed, it was a case of doing a little bit of tweaking, a little bit of basic editing, and putting them together with the actual album cover, and that was the finished product. And once I'd done a few as I write, I'm in the groove, I need to get them all done. And luckily I got them all done just and it was okay, that’s done. I'll post them on our internal social media group just for the families and friends of Sigmar Lodge to see. And for some activities, I share it on my public social media, just so that my family and friends can really see so that they can hopefully get a bit of a smile and see what I've been up to at work. And obviously it snowballed as people started sharing this post, and when I say snowball, it's kind of an understatement.

Glennis Markison 21:31
Modesty, you could argue.

Robert Speker 21:33
I never in my wildest dreams imagined this would happen.

Glennis Markison 21:38
And are your seniors on social media? I mean, are they seeing, have they seen your tweet about this and they, you know, thousands and thousands of likes?

Robert Speker 21:40
Well, one of the activities I used to do, it was called How to Engage with and How to Communicate with Your Great Grandchild. Just because somebody in their 90s or over 100, trying to have something in common with somebody who's in their teens, or even younger. So I was trying to teach them about terminology, telling them about Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, words that they may use to listen to music that their great grandchildren would listen to. So none of them use social media as much as you would, I do probably, but actually locked down has meant that they've used Facebook. I set up an account for them all to use collectively, and they've all really had video chats with either one family member or many family members at a time and to try and let somebody of that age see what is actually magical, to be able to see and talk to somebody in real time. Not just one person, your whole family in all different places around the world, I would shudder to think how bad this would be, say 20 years ago when this technology wasn't around and how we'd hope, so I feel we're very lucky to have this technology to be able to facilitate these video calls. And that's what we will, I was facilitating these calls many times a day, trying to fit in as many residents as possible so they could keep in regular contact with their family members.

Glennis Markison 23:36
Well, that's wonderful. Yeah, I mean, I think in our final couple minutes, so just strike on two points. The first being just really kind of best practices, if you could cover in a couple minutes of event planning of activity planning, especially now. So coming up with ideas, setting expectations, you know, promoting, getting feedback, just the kind of quick nuts and bolts of it I think would be helpful, and then getting into kind of other audiences to close on, of, you know, adults as well and little kids. So just that first kind of best practices of event planning, what can you tell listeners about the way you've kind of honed this expertise?

Robert Speker 24:22
Yeah, I would say another one is I'll drop all these sayings and cliches in use, this one a lot. It's a fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Okay, you need to think about things, you can't really do something just off the bat. If you think about things just so I'll try things out, also trial and error, some things may not work. Don't let that stop you. Try again, or just tweak it a little, change something that didn't work, see if something did work. And if something didn't work, we'll see that as a positive while you know, that doesn't work to try something different. And you also again, need to be able to know a lot about the subject so try and do your research. Try to know as much about the subject so you have that expertise, you know exactly what you're going to say, you know exactly what you're going to do. You've got that plan in mind, maybe have a Plan B or Plan C, just in case and enjoy it. Just make sure you enjoy it because if you're enjoying it, other people who are joining in will tend to enjoy it. You have to really be enthusiastic and do it with a smile because laughter is an intrinsic part of life. It happens out of the blue sometimes spontaneously, it's unconscious sometimes. You could be howling with laughter, giggling a bit, and laughter does do good. They say laughter is the best form of medicine. And I have seen this at Sigmar Lodge because there are some benefits of laughter, reducing tension, promoting cooperation, building trust, inspiring a positive outlook. There's so many benefits.

Glennis Markison 26:04
So it starts, it sounds, with genuine enthusiasm around it. It starts with the activity planner saying, you know, this would really make me laugh. I mean, I think it's a wonderful starting point. And I'm curious because we've really been in the senior housing example. What about other audiences? So if you could just name some ideas you think that traditional housing operators, apartments for people of all ages, and also little kids, like are there recommendations you think in our are very much digital age right now with COVID happening, that they could bring joy as well to their residents?

Robert Speker 26:32
Yeah, I think one thing with children is that I've seen it and I've tried to heavily hurt in activities which are intergenerational. I'm an advocate for intergenerational activities, and I try and usually do as much as possible. So before lock down, I had arranged for a nursery to come and do a session every week. So almost the same children will come, they form bonds with the elderly, and again, the relationship between somebody very young and somebody very old is a unique relationship. And a lot of these young children didn't actually have grandparents or older members of the family either live or in close vicinity, they could have been in a different country. So that relationship is a very special relationship. And it treats you know, they treat the residents with a lot of respect. And the residents really engaged well with somebody who was much younger. And they were reading books to them. They could have been asleep, but when they woke up and saw children, it gave them almost a new lease of life. They're excited that they were spending time with children and having this kind of teacher role. So I would say that anybody with children, try and get involved with maybe a care home nearby that you can maybe set up a pen pal where you write a letter to a resident and they write back. It's something I tried with a local school and now every year, it's the reception age, which is four and five year olds, so we're learning to read and write. So they write very basic letters to our residents, and I match them up, and the resident writes back to the individual child, and over the course of a year, they form a relationship until they eventually actually get the chance to meet the individual. And unfortunately, lockdown stopped this year's pen pal, because we had a trip lined up during lockdown which couldn't take place. However, even though these children weren't at school, they were still asking about the residents who they were pen pals with, and their parents actually made sure that they wrote letters and had them delivered to the home, which was just such a lovely thing.

Glennis Markison 29:09
Yeah, I mean, if I start crying, at least no one sees me right now. Let's be honest. So final minute, I'm just very curious, the most rewarding experience you've had with a resident in lock down over an activity or the discussion around one, but just one instance where you're really feeling that your work makes a difference and makes someone feel heard in this time.

Robert Speker 29:30
Yeah, there are so many. Four months and counting is a very long time. I can think of so many, or one thing is, there's a lady. She was 99 at the time to give you a clue of what it was. And she was turning 100 and her family had planned a big party for her. She's an amazing lady. For somebody who's 100 now and in this case, her family was so upset that they couldn't have this big party with all her family who are going to come. So I facilitated the video call on a big screen with all her family there and had decorated her room with streamers, party hat balloons. It was just me and her, so I felt very privileged, and it was a case, we opened all the cards. In England, anybody who's turning 100 gets a card from the Queen, so we opened that together, read it out. Her family were in tears when there was so much laughter. It was just such a lovely experience and a lot of people have had a lockdown birthday. Again, it will be a birthday they will remember and I hope that this lady's 100th birthday, I give her credit for this amazing, amazing anniversary, and that her family was so appreciative that she did have a party. She did celebrate it and we celebrated her hundred years as far as we could, and she also got a whole cake to herself.

Glennis Markison 31:14
Oh, that is magnificent. I am so, so grateful that you're able to take this time, Robert, and give all these great ideas. Just even the laughter is the best medicine and I hope listeners really, really keep and hold dear. So thank you so much again for being on Voices and for sharing your insights with us.

Robert Speker 31:30
Thank you very much indeed for having me.

Glennis Markison 31:38
If you'd like to hear from other voices in multifamily or learn how to share your voice, head to You can find Voices on Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast player. Voices is produced by HappyCo, the leading real time property operations platform for multifamily and student housing. We're on a mission to elevate property management to community management, prioritizing staff and resident well being that starts by listening to you, the voices of multifamily. I'm Glennis Markison. Thanks for listening. Also, feel free to take a minute and rate or review this podcast. That will help us share the voices of multifamily.

Our Host

Glennis Markison

Glennis is a writer and producer from San Francisco. Taking the city’s trains and buses with riders of all ages and backgrounds inspired Glennis to go into journalism and share people’s stories for a living. As HappyCo's Senior Content Producer, she’s excited to highlight diverse voices and share stories from within the Multifamily industry.