Jacqui Johnstone is manager of Cold Springs Park care home in Penrith.

At least that’s what it says on the website.

It’s not how she’s described on her name badge. It calls her “crazy guinea pig lady”.

“It’s a conversation starter,” Jacqui explains.

Communication and connection are very important for the elderly people she looks after, so she finds: “People will ask: ‘What does it say on your name badge?’ and it can start a chat. It makes it less clinical.”

All staff name badges at Cold Springs Park bear descriptions of their bearers rather than their job titles. Instead of “supervisor” they’re more likely to say “proud mum”.

But Jacqui so far is the only crazy guinea pig lady there.

Jacqui’s craziness is not limited to guinea pigs. The care home manager has turned her own house in Ainstable into another kind of care home for animals, many of them rescue animals.

She shares it with her partner Chris Airey, and more than 30 guinea pigs, four rabbits, three dogs, African pygmy hedgehogs and a giant African snail, bigger than Jacqui’s hand.

“I have an African millipede called Sparky, about this long,” she adds, holding her hands about 18 inches apart. “He lives with his African sun beetle friends.”

It sounds like a happy home. “My two bull terriers will sit on the couch with the rabbits and the guinea pigs.

“In fact we don’t have a couch. It’s for the animals.”

The couple don’t have children of their own but she points out: “My guinea pigs are my babies. Some people talk about their children. I’ll talk about my dogs.”

On a weekday Jacqui will be up at around 5am to take care of the animals before arriving at Cold Springs Park at 9am. Then after a day’s work there the animals need more attention.

A lot of weekends are spent visiting dog shows with bull terriers Rose and Taz, and Jack Russell Oscar.

Does she get time to eat? “Chris cooks all my dinners,” she replies. “I’ve got him well trained!”

It hardly needs saying that he’s an animal lover as well.

Jacqui’s own love affair with animals began when she was very young. Her parents didn’t have animals at home but she recalls: “My auntie and uncle had horses and dogs and ferrets, so I’ve always been around them.”

She wasn’t allowed one of her own until she was 12 and judged old enough to be responsible for it. Jacqui’s now 39, so 27 years ago she got her first guinea pig.

As they say, it all went from there.

“I never wanted to work with animals. I just wanted to look after them, I love taking care of them.”

And it was the exact same instinct that led Jacqui into her present job, running a care home for the elderly. She simply says: “I think if you’ve got a caring nature it’s what you’ll do.”

The caring professions had always appealed to her, and she spent her school work experience at the Cumberland Infirmary – though being a doctor or nurse weren’t options she considered. She was interested in other areas of medicine, such as occupational therapy or pharmacy.

And after A Levels at William Howard School in Brampton she went to work as a carer at Croft Avenue care home in Penrith, just for a year.

“That was 20 years ago.”

She discovered that looking after the old was the job for her.

“I find elderly people so interesting. They have so much life experience, and so many stories to tell.

“I love to improve their quality of life, even when they’re very poorly.”

She moved up from carer to senior carer but was keen to progress further. When the dementia unit was being set up at Cold Springs Park she applied for the job running it.

She was in at the deep end. The centre was brand new, with bricks, mortar and furniture – but no employees. “I had to interview all the staff and train them. We got a lot of people who were interested in becoming dementia carers.”

There are many types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s disease just the most common among hundreds.

And people experience it in many different ways. Some sufferers fail to recognise loved ones, others are much less severely affected.

So the ways of connecting with them have to vary just as widely.

“It’s about seeing the moments that make their day.”

One way of connecting is music.

“We had one lady who didn’t speak at all. Then one day we had some music on and she started singing along to it, she knew all the words.”

Another can be young visitors. “There are people who are quite distressed. Children come in and they light up.”

Animals can have the same effect. Many take delight in the rescue rabbit called Buttons who lives there, and Jacqui adds: “We are hoping to get some budgies. They’ll chat away.

“Or it could be an old smell. An old soap reminded someone of laundry day on Monday.”

But the technique varies from resident to resident.

“It could be as simple as a game of dominoes and a pint of beer. A cuddle can make someone’s day.

“We had one man who used to work at the Dalemain estate and was desperate to go back. He saw his old work colleagues and people he hadn’t seen for years, and it was amazing.

“There are moments all the time.”

It was while there that Jacqui met Chris, who was working there as a gardener at the time.

She returned to Croft Avenue for a spell as manager and came back to Cold Springs Park in March, in charge of both units.

At the moment 60 elderly people are being looked after there, with 38 in the ordinary residential unit and 22 in the dementia unit.

It was another deep end for Jacqui. “After 10 days the Care Quality Commission arrived for an unannounced inspection.

“We got through that and came out as ‘good’ overall. I want to get to ‘outstanding’ in two years.”

There are other hopes for the future. She’d like to see better understanding and recognition of the work carers do.

She’d also like the same focus on research into treatments for dementia as there is on other serious illnesses.

But she has no plans to move on.

“It’s a hard job – all jobs in health are – but it’s really rewarding. The highs outweigh the lows.

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Not even on holiday?

“I don’t do holidays at all. I wouldn’t leave my animals, no way!”