Vegetarian for Life

1. Tracey Hague: Serena Coles and me #DementiaActionWeek

Posted by Tom on 10/05/24 in Articles, Life After Retirement

Serena Coles was an early Vice President of The Vegan Society, and a passionate animal rights advocate. In 2004, her old friend, Kirsten Junsberg, found Serena living with dementia in a care home. Kirsten died last year. Her fellow activist, Tracey Hague, visited Serena repeatedly over the last years of Serena’s life, and describes the experiences she had, including the fight to uphold Serena’s right to practise her vegan beliefs.

"By 2003, The Vegan Society had lost contact with Serena Coles. They couldn’t find where she had moved to, and copies of the magazine and other Vegan Society correspondence were being ‘returned to sender’. At The Vegan Society AGM in Conway Hall, Kirsten Jungsberg (from Denmark) asked a question about Serena, and the CEO Rik Savage relayed the problem.

“Kirsten then advised she’d found Serena! She went to Serena’s old address. Although she got no answer, she asked a neighbour, who advised she’d moved into a nursing home in Purley some years before. Purley being in the south of Croydon (my home town), my ears pricked up, and I introduced myself to Kirsten. This was the start of Kirsten and me visiting Serena in a nursing home. Serena was non-verbal and living with dementia. It soon transpired that the home was acting on the instructions of Serena’s late husband, who had died 3 years earlier and had instructed the home to feed her meat!

“Although Serena had a son, he lived with his family in Derbyshire and only visited once a year. So we began visiting Serena, chatting to her. We showed her The Vegan magazine, while Kirsten showed her photos and also left some images from The Order of the Cross, which Serena had supported and been a member of. We also borrowed the home’s wheelchair and took Serena to the local supermarket, buying her some vegan foods, which we then fed to her upon returning to the home.

“When Kirsten returned to Denmark, my then fiancée and I visited Serena every weekend. I attempted to become Serena’s advocate (with the Social Services team for vulnerable elderly residents) as no-one was speaking up for her. I provided documentary evidence that she had been a vegan since the very early days of The Vegan Society (mid-late 1940s). It transpired that Serena had not left the four walls of the home in 3 years – not for a walk in the wheelchair; not for a daytrip or outing. She had basically been a prisoner.

“It took 18 months, but we eventually got vegan food for her. We and Kirsten told other vegans of Serena’s plight, via The Vegan Society, and cards and letters with best wishes and small gifts started rolling in for Serena. It was heartwarming. Kirsten and I also organised two birthday parties for Serena, inviting other vegans, organising vegan food and drink, and even music in a local hired hall. The joy on Serena’s face each time we visited, but especially seeing lots of vegans at her parties, was wonderful to witness.

“As the weeks went on, with Kirsten’s periodic visits and the donations we received, we were able to provide new plastic picnic crockery and cutlery (untainted by non-vegan food) with which to prepare and feed her vegan snacks during our visits. We also washed up items to completely eliminate any chance of cross-contamination from the nursing home’s own facilities. We bought two large fleece blankets as Serena always seemed to be cold. During our weekly visits, she was usually in bed or in a chair in her bedroom, not in the TV lounge with the other residents; finding her still in bed at 4pm on a cold dark winter’s Sunday was upsetting. Each week we spoke up for Serena, asking about and challenging how she was being treated. More than once, we had to retrieve her blankets from the common stores; each bore her name as we’d purchased sew-on name labels for Serena.

“I’m proud that for nearly 2 years we provided companionship to Serena, fought for her rights, and kept her in contact with other vegans far and wide (reading out their letters and cards to her, and displaying them in her room). For the last 6 months of her life, Serena was fed vegan food, thanks in no small part to the support and catering information supplied by The Vegan Society. Sadly, Serena did not live long enough to see my first child born, but again at the funeral, many cards were sent and many vegans attended. Kirsten provided flowers and invited those present to choose one and place it on Serena’s coffin, which many present did. Serena’s son did not stay afterwards or even thank me or Kirsten for all we’d done for his mother in her last few years, but the vegans present came back to my mother’s house, where I’d laid on a vegan buffet and we were able to share stories about Serena’s campaigning for veganism.

“I never knew Serena in her prime, and I’ve only been able to hear her voice by listening to recording of her from 1980s. However, I acknowledge the huge debt I and countless other vegans owe to pioneers like Serena who fought long and hard for the things we’ve come to expect in 21st century Britain. She was a diminutive figure who made her voice heard. We vegans today stand on the shoulders of giants such as Serena.”

In 2021, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Vegetarianism and Veganism published an Inquiry report into respect for religious and philosophical beliefs while eating in care. Sadly, it showed that Serena’s experience is not uncommon. The report calls for increased protection within care settings, strengthening regulations and guidance to recognise that philosophical beliefs (including vegetarianism and veganism) are as important to individuals as their religious beliefs or cultural background. It argues that these should be supported with mandatory training to help carers learn about and fully understand the importance of such beliefs, and for dietary guides to be displayed in kitchens to help catering staff put this into practice.

Care establishments can help protect the beliefs of those living with dementia by signing up to VfL’s Memory Care Pledge, with its Five Fundamentals of care that allow residents, especially those with cognitive loss, to live the rest of their lives the way that they intended.

Individuals can help protect their current and future rights by following the guidance in VfL’s self-advocacy pack for older vegans and vegetarians. This guides them through their rights, to help ensure that these are respected in case of loss of capacity or cognition or when receiving care. They can also search for care settings that have taken the Memory Care Pledge through VfL’s UK List of care establishments and Directory of Memory Care Pledges, both via the VfL website.


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