A shampoo and set experience

19 Apr

My sensory experience of a shampoo and set

I am in the hair salon of the care home where I have been carrying out research for the last few months.  There are no clients, but instead of heading off home the hairdresser is kindly staying to give me a ‘shampoo and set’ – something I have never had before.

It’s quiet so I can’t experience the usual comings and goings of residents and the manoeuvring of wheelchairs.  But after watching so many others go through this process (both here and in other settings where I am carrying out this research) I’m keen to know what it’s like.

Even though this is part of my research, sort of an experiment, I am still nervous. I don’t want to end up with hair that I don’t like, that changes how I look.  Hair feels integral to my appearance and identity, to ‘who I am’.

The consultation begins with the hairdresser asking me how I would like my hair.  In my mind I’m creating hairstyles from ‘Madmen’ and thinking about the burlesque revival and Lana Del Rey’s vintage style.  I show her a picture of a woman with a demi wave and the hairdresser says she won’t be able to do that look.  She reassures me that she won’t give me tight curls – she will use her biggest rollers on wide strips of hair.  There’s a lot of trust in this (fleeting) relationship.

The hairdresser moves me to the sink, it’s a front facing wash, not a back wash sink like they have in most salons today.  She puts a towel around me and I lean over the sink.  Water rushes; it takes a few moments for the temperature to become warm enough.  Then the water rushes over my head and I feel very wet. It’s dark as I face into the sink and can’t open my eyes.  I hold the towel around my face.  The shampoo massage is lovely; the hairdresser has very firm hands and I am relieved of any tension.  Then the rinse and I felt aware of all the water flooding over me; the hairdresser held my head over the basin and I felt drenched and encased in water.  The water is warm now, and the smells of the shampoo and conditioner fill my nose.  As the hairdresser firmly lifted my head up from the sink water drips down my face.  The light changes as I come up from the dark depths of the sink.  I wonder what this experience would be like if I were a person with dementia, maybe without my glasses and hearing aid.

After I have been towelled dry, my hair is sprayed with setting lotion.  When I’ve been filming I’ve noticed women jumping slightly and exclaim how cold the lotion is, so I was at least prepared for this.  The setting lotion will help to keep my new curls in place.  I sit in front of the mirror having my hair combed and parted and put into rollers. The hairdresser moves very fast: parting hair and rolling it up deftly.  She says it is important not to leave a ‘hook’ at the end of the roller; this happens if you don’t get all of the hair over onto the roller.  As my hair is quite thick it isn’t uncomfortable, and I quite enjoy the process of my hair being combed and pulled, there was something therapeutic in the rhythm but I could imagine it might tug if my hair was thinner.

I like how I look with my hair all up in rollers; it’s old fashioned image.  The mirror is pretty big, and I face myself the whole time, but not everyone does always face the mirror like this. I usually film from the side and it made me realise that I haven’t always caught this aspect of the salon and mirror.

The hairdresser brings the dryer over to me so that I am still in view of the camera which is filming the process.  The dryer is a standalone hood dryer; it feels very strange under it at first.  The hood is lowered over me and comes down as low as my eyes.  There is sudden hot air and noise – I feel like I am enclosed inside an engine and it sounds like it is going to take off.  A recent Radio 4 play by Alex Blumer explored the experience of soundscapes to people with memory loss.  She describes all sounds as noise until you know what they are. Going into the dryer could well be a terrifying experience for a person with dementia and I have regularly noticed discomfort when people initially go under the dryer.

After a while I become accustomed to the warmth and begin to enjoy it and then feel sleepy and then after more time I become fidgety. I don’t want to be encased in the dryer any longer.  I feel cut off and trapped. It was a relief to come out from under the dryer after half an hour.  This is actually longer than many of the residents sit under for, because their hair is thinner and dries quicker or because they can only bear it for 15-20 minutes.

The rollers come out very quickly.  My hair is bouncing curls.  It looks shiny and thick but I really hate the style. I look strange and ‘unlike myself’.  An aim in this research is to try to explore the role that appearance plays in this sense of self.  Certainly this self staring back at me in the mirror is not an image I want to see; the light of the salon, the size of the mirror and this mirror image gives me a vision of myself that I don’t want to recognise.

For more on Alex Blumer’s play see (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/ouch/2012/03/blind_playwright_plays_with_so.html?postId=112034090).

An hour long Women’s Hour programme (Summer 2011), describes the strength and occasional intensity of the relationship between women and their hairdresser ( Women’s Hour Hair Programme).

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4 Responses to “A shampoo and set experience”

  1. Liz Richardson May 13, 2012 at 11:28 am #

    I read your experience with some interest, a similar thing happened to me while visitng my grandmother in a care home, i took her to the integral hair salon for her appointment and when the hairdresser had put her under a dryer she offered to do mine, i had never experienced a shampoo & set before either and the feelings i had were very much like yours. At first i think like you it was the shock of seeing myself with much shorter hair and such a different old fashioned looking hairstyle that i didn’t like it. I found it surprising how many people actually commented that it looked nice and suited me, where they have never done so for any hairstyles i have had before, and it grew on me to such an extent that i have found an older type salon and have it done regularly.

  2. blazeslidey July 1, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

    Your description of the potentially traumatic interpretation of this seemingly innocuous process may perhaps explain my mum’ s reluctance to have her hair done (or bathe) now.

    Now 85, she was for most of her life fanatically keen on hairdressing. As a child, I would often accompany her to appointments, so this ritual was also a key shared memory. In retirement she would go up to a top London salon in search of the best possible cut and would look forward to the whole experience: being transformed by the cut and tint itself, chatting with the staff, spotting celebs, being brought a cup of tea and snacks, planning the journey and looking in the shops afterwards. When she became physically frail in latter years, she would still insist on making this all-day trip, despite it having become quite perilous for her on her own; indeed the last time she fell and fractured her pelvis before she’d even left the station on arrival, having got up ridiculously early and with no breakfast to catch a 6.30am coach – which resulted in several weeks in hospital/rehab. Only then would she accept a return to the local salons (rather turning her nose up at their supposedly provincial styles and ambience!), but was still keen to maintain a smart appearance.

    However, about two years to eighteen months ago, she suddenly became unusually reluctant to go. She would still remark in consternation that her hair needed doing, but if I suggested simply making an appointment and getting on with it, she would say “I’ve got all the time in the world, I’ll do it in my own time” and never get round to it. I started to make appointments for her when I could take her at weekends, but she would get irate at me for “taking this upon myself” and began to suspect my motives (“you’re just trying to get me out of this house”). She also refused to let me help her wash her hair at home and would say she had done it herself, when obviously she hadn’t.

    I knew that left to herself she would never have it washed, let alone cut or tinted; it was beginning to impact on not only her appearance but personal hygiene, so I finally began tricking her into the appointments – taking her out to lunch at a nearby wine bar and then escorting her into the salon on the way back to the car. I didn’t like deceiving her, but it was the only way to get her to the hairdresser at all. Even then she would argue vehemently with me on the pavement outside and would sometimes refuse to go in. Friends and I had suggested trying a mobile stylist who could visit her at home, but she refused this too.

    Now that she is in residential care, I had hoped that the staff with greater experience and back-up would have more success than me in persuading her to have her hair done at the in-house salon. I have signed her up for a weekly blow dry and bi-monthly cut and tint. Every week they ask her if she wants to go downstairs to the salon – and every week she says no. Seeing others going and coming back looking better is no inducement; neither is she reassured by the offer of friends to sit with her while she has it done. Yet still she tuts that “my hair’s completely white! I must get it seen to”, while refusing all attempts to do anything about it. It is now almost a year since she even had it washed, and she really doesn’t look “herself” any more (in the my lifetime she always had a short cut, like Elizabeth Taylor, but now her hair is shoulder length and unstyled); sometimes I struggle to pick her out among the others in the lounge when I arrive to visit. She has also totally given up bathing and putting on lipstick or blusher.

    None of this is the fault of the staff, who are always on hand to help and do their best to ensure that everyone is cleanly and smartly dressed in their accustomed style. The carers also give manicures and help with make-up etc, but my mum, previously very fastidious, now refuses all efforts at personal grooming. It is totally out of keeping with her previous character, but the more anyone tries to persuade her to accept help, the more she digs in her heels. Any suggestions for how to address this would be most gratefully received.

    • thehairandcareproject July 13, 2012 at 8:22 am #

      Thanks so much for sharing with us about your mum’s current situation and her lifelong experiences with appearance, hair care and her identity. We are glad that you have found our site useful. We really appreciate hearing about experiences such as yours that indicate the value in this work and the need to highlight this aspect of care. I would say that we are in the early stages of analysing our data collected over many months of observations in care settings and interviews with hairdressers, health and social care staff, family carers and people with dementia themselves.

      For many people the weekly hair experience is anticipated and undertaken without stress, but for others it can be more difficult. Also it may be for many that at the time they are offered the opportunity to go to the hairdresser they don’t feel like it and because their choice is respected are not forced to go, although they may be encouraged to change their mind. However if this continues over a lengthy period of time some of our hairdressers have found it helpful to go to the client and to spend time developing their relationship with them to encourage them to come to the salon or even undertaking the hair process in their bedroom instead of the salon space. I hope that you are able to find a way to enable your mum to have her hair done again. Best of luck. Thanks again for posting and do stay in touch.

  3. blazeslidey July 14, 2012 at 2:59 pm #

    Thank you for your thoughts. I’m afraid that in my mum’s case nothing, not even the most pleasurable things, can now be anticipated, as she has no concept of time beyond the immediate moment. Any attempt to involve her in advance planning merely puts pressure on her and makes her extremely anxious, defensive, and suspicious. In this scenario, it is pointless to ask her if she would *like* to do something even five minutes beforehand, as the answer will inevitably be “no, I don’t feel like it” (as you say above), or “I’ll think about it when I’ve got time” and then of course it is forgotten.

    I appreciate that in a care setting the staff are obliged to ask and respect the resident’s wishes, but it is frustrating. I feel that if they could covertly ambush her into it with some social distraction, she may comply and would feel better for it. However, these strategies take a great deal of individual time and patience, which may not be practical when staff have a great number of duties. I have enlisted friends to help, but even they have not been able to make progress, as it would be necessary to have the hairdresser poised at the same time to act on the spur of the moment, and it’s very hard to co-ordinate.

    I will try your suggestion of getting the hairdresser to form a relationship without attempting the hair-do first and then having a go in the room. If it works, I’ll let you know!

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