Lenny White’s dementia-friendly mobile barber service has been such a hit with clients he’s taking the concept global, and will even be in Australia next year to talk about the unique service he offers people living with dementia.
When Lenny first engaged with people living with dementia, he was 17 years old and washing dishes at his local care home. Serving meals to the residents, he always enjoyed their company and found it easy to speak to them. He had a knack for being able to enter into their world and form connections, and he enjoyed hearing their stories and learning about what they had done in their lives.
When families asked Lenny to spend time with their loved ones, he was always happy to help.
Lenny told HelloCare the term ‘dementia’ wasn’t really used in those days. People would just say the residents were ‘senile’ or ‘they’re just getting older’.
But time went on, and Lenny left the care home. With five children and a mortgage, Lenny for 20 years had a career in sales.
“During that time, I always knew I was called to do something different, I just didn’t know what it was,” he said.
A life change provided an opportunity
After a divorce that meant shared custody of his children, Lenny had some time to himself.
He thought long and hard about what he wanted to do, and retrained as a barber. It was only then thought of becoming a barber in nursing homes.
In November 2016, a friend working in a care home asked Lenny to put on a ‘men’s day’ for residents.
“I knew from experience in care homes it was always the women who went to the hairdresser,” Lenny said. “The rooms are always pink, and the men were just given a very light trim around the bottom. It was very old fashioned. It wasn’t masculine.”
“I wanted to create something different,” Lenny said.
So he brought in a few CDs, mainly Dean Martin and Elvis, and old-fashioned soap, and he set the room up to look like a traditional barber shop.
“This is something different”
“That very first day, it was a completely different atmosphere because it was a barber and I was a male,” Lenny said.
“It was so familiar to the men, even though they hadn’t been to the barber for a couple of years.
“But it was very easy for them.
“That very first day, the staff said this is very different. The men are opening up to you, they’re singing along to the music.”
Lenny noticed that even men who couldn’t speak were tapping their foot along to the music.
Lenny knew immediately this was what he wanted to do.
Becoming dementia friendly
After completing dementia training, Lenny changed his trading name to Lenny the Dementia-Friendly barber.
At this point he was still working in his sales job and barbering in care homes on the side, but from February 2017 he was able to leave his job and commit to barbering full time.
To gain more experience of working with older people, Lenny got a job as a care assistant at the care home where he held the first barber day. Through this work, he was able to gain a better understanding of dementia and end-of-life care.
And he also gained perspective on what his barber service meant to the residents.
“My role is to take these men out of their current situation,” Lenny said.
“I treat them no different than anyone else. Their lives have just been changed by a diagnosis, but the men are still the same person inside.
“It’s a very rewarding job,” he said.
As well as working in care homes, Lenny often visits the men in their own homes, and stays with them when they go to care, and then through to end-of-life care.
Props are key
Lenny explained that props are the key to how residents respond to his service. “It’s about setting the room up so the men recognise the setting,” he said.
“The music makes all the difference.”
Lenny plays the music on a jukebox, and concentrates on mainly war-time music. It gets the men reminiscing, he said. The men might comment it’s the song they used to dance to with their wife, or it’s the music their father used to listen to.
“Music therapy is really important to the men,” Lenny said.
Lenny also has a banner that he hangs across the room, that lets the residents know it’s a barber shop.
He sprays the room with a fresh lemon cologne, which is often commented on, and he plugs in a rotating barber pole, another prompt to the men’s memory from old times.
A robotic dog, which Lenny bought in the United States, entertains the men while they wait for their turn to have their hair cut. The dog responds to touch and voice, and it moves its head and tail.
One resident thought it was her father’s dog. “She couldn’t believe her father’s old dog had come back,” Lenny said.
A needed service
Lenny is coming to Australia next June to be part of Hammond Care’s International Dementia Conference.
HammondCare Dementia Centre Director Associate Professor Colm Cunningham told HelloCare, “Lenny White, also known as the dementia friendly barber, will be one of a number of accomplished and engaging speakers at the conference.”
“He has also taken the time to invest in specialist dementia training after realising most of his customers were experiencing symptoms.”
Dementia-friendly barbering is “a much needed service,” Lenny told HelloCare.
He now visits 60 care homes across Northern Ireland, returning every six weeks, and does voluntary work in two care homes in New York.
“I’m blessed,” he said.