One of the most extraordinary comments I heard in the wake of Alzheimer’s Society launching their guide to becoming a dementia-friendly retailer was from a shopkeeper who said: “Why on earth do I need to make my shop dementia-friendly? Dementia sufferers shouldn’t be going shopping – they might forget to pay.”
I won’t print my response. And by way of clarification, the quote is reproduced as the person said it, and perhaps the lack of appropriate language is, in this instance, illustrative of a particularly backward attitude.
Apart from proving we still have a long way to go to tackle stigma, discrimination and negativity towards people with dementia, this comment also shows EXACTLY why we need to make shopping easier for people with dementia. Individuals living with dementia have as much right to get out and about in their communities as anyone else, and fellow citizens who suggest otherwise need to be challenged about their viewpoint.
It always strikes me as contradictory that there is a desire to close down a person’s life as they age, and yet their earliest memories are likely to be of the world being opened up to them, and them being encouraged to explore, develop and learn. Instinct teaches us that this is the route to survival, and parents are actively encouraged to ensure their children take every opportunity to familiarise themselves with, and test, the world around them.
It therefore makes no sense for our society to try and strip away this survival instinct, and I wholeheartedly welcome any move that might make local communities more accessible and less intimidating for people with dementia. For many people, shopping is an activity that they associate with discovering new things, and the fun and happiness of finding what you are looking for – indeed, nearly 80% of people with dementia who were surveyed by Alzheimer’s Society listed shopping as their favourite activity (although 63% didn’t think shops were doing enough to help people with dementia) – so it’s vital that we make the environments that deliver these experiences suitable for everyone.
For me, there is a really important argument here about dementia-friendly communities benefiting all of us. I have questioned the wisdom of dementia-friendly checkouts before, arguing the need for all checkouts to automatically be ‘dementia-friendly’, because the elements that go into making a dementia-friendly checkout are potentially something that many people could benefit from.
Maybe a better shopping experience might even tempt me back to the shops. I have developed a personal dislike of going shopping, probably because trying to accomplish this with a baby and a pram isn’t easy. The difficulties I’ve encountered have certainly made me think about how a person with dementia might cope, particularly if they happen to be in a wheelchair. Signage and availability of lifts and toilets is often poor, and the lack of these can cut a shopping trip frustratingly short.
Then there is the classic example of staff who don’t know the products in their store (something I fell victim to in a major garden centre chain recently), and as Ann Johnson points out in this film, the highly confusing example of shops moving their products around. I know why they do it, they want customers to spend more time trying to find what they need and in the process see other products, but it’s so unhelpful if you are expecting the items you need to be in a certain place and they aren’t there.
As a result of all my gripes and grumbles I’m mostly sworn off going to the shops now, preferring online options. That does mean more trips to the post office with parcels to return, however, highlighting the need for local services like a post office and for the staff within those services to understand the needs of all of the people in their community.
Most people with dementia tell me that counting money is by far their biggest challenge, and this certainly rings true with what Alzheimer’s Society are reporting. Then there is the difficulty of selecting the goods you really want. Prior to my dad’s diagnosis he would often shop in a very random way, bringing home items from the supermarket that didn’t correlate into meals he would want to eat, and going to other shops and auctions, spending a lot of money on things that weren’t worth what he was paying for them and that he didn’t need.
In hindsight, I suspect that this was often due to going around shops and picking up things that looked appealing, or that seemed familiar to him on that day. He could easily have been seen as a ‘soft target’ for unscrupulous people who just wanted to sell him something, regardless of whether he actually needed it or not.
So what does a good example of supporting a person with dementia as they go shopping really look like? ‘Family’ parking spaces (rather than just ‘parent and child’ parking), good signage and easy-to-find and use facilities (like toilets), good lighting and not bombarding the senses with loud music or announcements, appropriate flooring and careful use of mirrors, good availability and labelling of products, staff training in helping customers who are living with dementia, different payment options and support with counting money (with staff being completely honest and trustworthy in that process), giving time, and being kind and attentive – perhaps offering to accompany a person around a large store like a supermarket so that they can find what they are looking for.
It’s also about recognising a person’s right to a shopping experience that makes sense to them (which means each individual, not a one-size-fits-all) and tailoring the amount of help/support offered. It’s about forming relationships with regular customers, something small independent shops are often great at but bigger stores with higher staff turnovers can struggle with. It’s about not being judgmental, and from a purely business perspective, understanding that whoever your customer is, and whatever physical, mental or cognitive challenges they have, their money is as good as anyone else’s in your till – the ‘business’ case for being ‘dementia-friendly’ is clear from the Alzheimer’s Society retail guide.
Ultimately, a person with dementia may not remember you, but they will remember how you made them feel. That, for me, really sums up how you make a shopping experience for a person with dementia the stress-free, enjoyable time it should be.
Until next time…