At 17, Lenny White worked in a care facility in his native Northern Ireland, washing dishes and serving food. He found he had a knack for talking with dementia patients.
“I used to love working with them and getting into their world,” he recalled. “They would say, ‘I’m only 30,’ or ‘I want my mummy.’ I’d say, ‘Your mummy will be back soon;’ you wouldn’t tell them, ‘Your mother’s dead.’"
Even after he grew up and became a marketing consultant, he never forgot how good talking to dementia patients had made him feel.
Two decades later, after getting divorced, he took a barbering course. A friend who worked in a care facility mentioned how there was a salon for the women there, done up in pink, but nothing equivalent for the men. So White decided to do a men’s day.
He brought in a barber’s pole, put on an old-fashioned barber’s apron and sprayed the room with a lemon-scented cologne. He turned on the music of Dean Martin and Elvis Presley, and a group of men was brought in for haircuts.
They loved it.
“The staff noticed a big difference,” White recalled of that day, a little over two years ago. As the music played, he chatted with the men and snipped away. Some who had been agitated became relaxed and tapped their feet. Word spread to other care facilities, and thus White, who lives in Bangor, Northern Ireland, became Lenny the Mobile Barber, traveling around the United Kingdom and beyond to deliver an old-fashioned hot towel shave-and-a-haircut to men with dementia.
Research has shown that people with dementia respond well to stimuli such as music, especially if they are familiar songs from their youth, and to visual cues that hark to their younger days.
White’s equipment now includes a portable jukebox loaded with oldies and a robotic dog that barks and is a big hit with the men. (Some have mistaken it for dogs they knew in their youth.)
He chats them up as he clips, asking where they are from, what kind of jobs they have had and what their old barber used to wear. “It’s very different having a man cutting your hair than a woman," he said. "You can have man-chat and man-banter.”
“It’s a whole multisensory experience,” said Rhonda Robinson, manager of supported living at 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 challenging conditions.”
White has the men come in a group, which mimics the camaraderie found in a real barbershop. “It’s taking them back to their younger days when they’re sitting and waiting for a haircut,” Robinson said. Sometimes they sing along or even dance to the music while they’re waiting.
“You see the smile on their face,” Wendy Carleton of Greyabbey, Northern Ireland, whose father, a retired farmer with frontal lobe dementia, has received haircuts from White. “It gives them a bit of dignity.”
With dementia, moments of fear or confusion can set in. When that happens to one of his clients, White turns the music down. “It’s Lenny,” he’ll say. “You’re okay, I’m your barber, I’m just here to give you a haircut.” Sometimes he’ll hold the man’s hand while he’s cutting his hair, or touch him on the shoulder to reassure him.
When he leaves them, their eyebrows trimmed, nose and ear hair snipped, cheeks smooth and glowing with aftershave, he feels uplifted. “I know that I’ve made a difference in their life,” he said. “It may 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 feels connected to the men whose hair he cuts, and he braces himself for the inevitable return visits when he finds some of them gone. It struck him at one point, he said, that “I am their last barber.”
Once a year, White takes his dog and barber pole across the Atlantic, to New Jersey. For those trips, he brings CDs of traditional Irish songs.
“I’ve been in the industry a long time, and let me tell you, it was breathtaking,” said Renee Chimento, lifestyles director at The Chelsea at Montville, an assisted living community in Montville, N.J., where White visited a few weeks ago. “He does it from the heart. People feel that.”
Now, she has bought some lemon-scented cologne. And when the facility’s regular barber comes in next week, “I want to make sure he plays music.”