Montreal

'Dementia barber' helps Côte Saint-Luc men relive old times with a sensory experience

After about two decades in sales, Lenny White found a new calling in life, blending his recent barber studies with a passion for working with seniors. Nowadays, he offers his mobile barbershop service to men with memory loss.

Lenny White offers his clients a haircut, shave and a walk down memory lane

Saul Fenster, 92, was all smiles after he got his haircut by Lenny White in Côte Saint-Luc on Tuesday. White offers a mobile barbershop service to men with memory loss. (CBC)

A flashing jukebox plays oldies while grey-haired men hum along, a striped pole rotates and the citrusy aroma of lemon-laced, Turkish cologne fills the air.

The sights, scents and sounds were strategically set up in Côte Saint-Luc Tuesday to help clients stir up fleeting memories of days gone by while their hair is trimmed, their faces shaved and their eyebrows groomed.

The Irish barber behind the mobile barbershop offered his clients much more than a new do.

"My clients can vary from being very early-onset dementia to being in the last stages," said Lenny White.

"By bringing the barbershop to them, it's helping them socially and it's helping us all because I'm getting a lot from them."

White is a self-described "dementia barber" who offers his service to men with memory loss. After about two decades in sales, he found a new calling a couple of years ago — combining his recent barber studies with a passion for working with seniors.

He hails from Millisle, a seaside village in Northern Ireland, but he made a special trip to Côte Saint-Luc this week. He was flown in by the Cummings Centre to set up a mobile shop and offer his services to men like Saul Fenster, 92, who was all smiles after his hair was cut.

"Wow," he told White as he held up a mirror. "I love it."

Lenny White's mobile barbershop is a sensory experience, with music, lights, a barber pole and scents that he sprays in the air.

White offers his mobile barber services to nursing homes, hospitals, day centres and community groups. He sets up a sensory experience, he said, by playing music and applying old-fashioned aftershave to jog their memories.

"My whole thing is to try to bring peace and try to bring a bit of fun to something that is quite sad, not only the person living with dementia, but also their families."

Getting the conversation going

White creates an environment where the men "can feel safe and loved" — men, he said, that once enjoyed heading down to the local barbershop or pub to "meet together as men."

Once his clients are seated and covered in an apron, White gets the conversation going. For example, he'll ask about the music on the jukebox, if they ever danced to the song and where they danced to the song.

Lenny White, from Ireland, came to Canada this week to offer clients much more than just a haircut. He offers them an experience, complete with smells, sights and sounds. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

At the Cummings Centre's Côte Saint-Luc location, he heard stories of men from overseas, men who survived the Holocaust or fought in the war. They've lost loved ones and gone onto work a variety of careers.

"They've lived extraordinary lives," White said. "The thing about it is, they all have a story."

Creating an experience

Michelle Moore-Torman supervises the drop-in program at the Cummings Centre, a Montreal-based organization that works to improve the quality of life for adults over 50. 

After learning about White's service through social media, the centre thought is was a good fit for its community.

"We really wanted to create an experience for the gentlemen in our room, to kind of bring them back to the time where they'd go to the barber, have amazing conversations and get pampered," she said.

Watch a haircut, shave and walk down memory lane:
Lenny White explains his philosophy and cuts the hair of Saul Fenster, a Holocaust survivor, in this video. 0:53

The centre is providing White with plane tickets and a place to stay, but he's not charging to cut hair. He's enjoying the trip while soaking up an experience he's come to love.

"I'm blessed, I'm very lucky and very humbled to actually be in the position to be these men's barber," White said.

"For me, it's bringing about positivity. It's giving them their looks back."

with files from Simon Nakonechny

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