Fresh Cuts From This 'Dementia-Friendly' Barber Bring Clients Renewed Confidence

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Lenny White smiles with a client during a haircut. (Courtesy)
Lenny White smiles with a client during a haircut. (Courtesy)

Jim Gray no longer looks like the athlete he used to be. He uses a walker to get around, and his legs sometimes give him trouble. But he still remembers the days he used to strap on boxing gloves and climb into the ring for Ulster, a province of Northern Ireland.

“I fought against Germany,” Gray said.

His friend, Lenny White, listens and then jests: “Well, don’t be boxing me today if I do anything wrong."

This isn’t the first time Lenny’s heard about Jim’s boxing days. He’s heard Jim reminisce about his time in the ring many times before because Jim, who is in the early stages of dementia, tends to repeat himself.

Jim Gray, right, poses with a friend for a post-haircut picture with barber Lenny White, center. (Courtesy Lenny White and Rhonda Robinson)
Jim Gray, right, poses with a friend for a post-haircut picture with barber Lenny White, center. (Courtesy Lenny White and Rhonda Robinson)

The unlikely friendship between 37-year-old Lenny and 81-year-old Jim began just this year, when Jim moved to Ravara Court in Bangor, Northern Ireland. But Lenny’s work with the elderly dates back 20 years. He was a dishwasher back then at an assisted-living facility, or what the Irish and British refer to as a care home.

After his short stint at the care home, Lenny decided to pursue a more lucrative career. He worked in sales at a call center in Belfast for nearly two decades.

Still, Lenny felt dissatisfied. He wanted a job that would give him a sense of purpose.

“I knew that I was called for something, but I didn't know what," Lenny said, "and I was always searching for what do I want to be?"

As Lenny searched for his calling, he came across a course to become a barber. It piqued his interest, so he signed up. A year later, in 2016, he earned his degree.

That’s when an idea struck him. Lenny wanted to bring the same pampering elderly women in the care homes received to the men living beside them.

“I used to watch the hairdresser coming in and taking the wee ladies and going out,” he said. “And I thought, I would like to go and do a man's day.”

So he called up a local care home and asked if he could come in to help take care of the men. The staff at the care home were interested.

“So basically I'll go in, and it's a pop-up barbershop,” he said. “I'll set up the barber pole, I'll bring the jukebox for the music.”

With all these familiar touches in place, Lenny said his clients — the men living in the facilities — recognize him and his role right away.

"I am these men's last barber, and that's a privilege."

Lenny White

This became especially helpful when the Alzheimer’s Association reached out to Lenny two months into his barbering gig. The association wanted to train him on how to care for people with dementia. That’s when Lenny learned even more skills to go along with his newly developed craft.

“I'll maybe turn the music down. I’ll talk to them quietly. I'll bend down to their eye level, [and] I will say, ‘This is Lenny, I'm a barber. I'm here to cut your hair,’ ” he said. “I will show them my tools, and then touch is very important — that seems to settle them. I'll maybe even hold their hand while I'm shaving them with the other hand.”

As Lenny's business started taking off, his passion for the job grew. This was the fulfillment he was looking for.

Now Lenny visits 55 care homes in Northern Ireland, Ireland and England. He is known as Lenny, the world’s first "dementia-friendly" barber.

At every stop, he cuts hair, trims eyebrows and gives clean shaves. These small gestures help the men gain back the confidence they once had.

Lenny White gives a client a shave. (Courtesy via Facebook)
Lenny White gives a client a shave. (Courtesy via Facebook)

Lenny knows he’s making an impact when family members reach out to him in person or on social media.

“I get a lot of people saying, ‘My dad, I knew that he was getting bad whenever he stopped shaving, and his appearance was very important to him,’ ” he said. “It's so important for their families, especially. They come in and they go, ‘That just looks like my dad. Thank you so much.’ ”

Which brings us back to Jim Gray, sitting in front of Lenny, getting a fresh — and very short — buzzed haircut.

Jim once again feels pride in his appearance as he did when he was younger and working as a driver for an oil company. After he retired, his wife passed away. He was alone, with occasional visits from his family.

“I just sat in my house on me own,” Jim said. “I never mixed, never talked much.”

Everything changed once he moved into Ravara Court, the care home specially designed for people with dementia, where he resides in his own apartment. Though loneliness still strikes him from time to time, he now has friends by his side to chat with and enjoy afternoons in front of the television. And every six weeks, he’s got Lenny.

“Well everybody, all [the] men look forward to see him,” he said.

Lenny’s days aren’t always easy. There are times when he works with men who are far along in their dementia and can become easily agitated. Some of his clients are nonverbal and some too weak to go to his set-up in a common area.

“Some of them are in their final stages,” Lenny said. “Every six weeks I return to a different care home. We find out that Jimmy isn't there, that Sammy's gone. But, how I deal with that is I just try and be positive that I've done these men proud, that they're looking good. I am these men's last barber, and that's a privilege.”

Lenny said he’s honored to do this work. And the thought of bringing joy to these men — even if it’s just for a fleeting moment — is worth every tear shed over a final goodbye.

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This segment aired on November 26, 2018.

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Andrea Asuaje Reporter/Producer, Kind World
Andrea Asuaje was a reporter and producer in WBUR’s iLab, where she made Kind World.



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