When I last wrote about the UK’s dementia challenge I said that we needed to make our country a place where people who are living with dementia can lead the lives they deserve to, rather than the ones foisted upon them by prejudice and ignorance. In practice, this means every community becoming dementia friendly, embracing this most cruel of diseases, and seeing the people who have developed it as an asset, rather than a problem.
It requires a change in attitudes, approaches and opinions that will not happen overnight, and realistically some people will never be convinced by the argument that everyone with dementia deserves to live well with it, rather than simply die from it. However, given the current numbers of people with dementia, and the predicted number of cases for the future, many more lives are going to be touched by this disease than a lot of people may even want to contemplate at the moment, making this the time for the UK to become both more aware of dementia and more friendly towards it.
At every stage of dementia, from pre-diagnosis to end-of-life care, every service accessed by people with dementia and their carers needs to have an intrinsic appreciation of what dementia means, how it affects everyday life, and what can be done practically to make using services easier. For the wider community, it is about adopting the key principles of compassion, dedication and personalisation to ultimately become more dementia friendly.
None of this is achievable without widespread awareness and education of dementia across all generations, from education in schools to campaigns targeting people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s whose parents or grandparents may be showing signs of dementia, and finally to supporting people in their 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s who may have dementia themselves, be trying to look after a partner with dementia, or are concerned about the impact dementia could have on their life if they develop it.
To do this community healthcare services, community groups, social and charitable groups, local and national media, and technology like social media, apps etc need to pull together as one to reach as wide and diverse an audience as possible. Realistic but also positive coverage of dementia that informs people, rather than terrifying them, will prove that this disease is not a black hole of nothing, and that living well with it is an attainable desire for everyone with dementia and their families and friends.
At the heart of all awareness campaigning must be people with first-hand experience of dementia, whether they are currently living with it, caring for someone with it, or have done in the past. I have written previously about harnessing the power of people’s first-hand dementia experiences to appeal to the hearts and minds of the wider population, and that will never be more important than in the quest to make dementia friendly communities. These people are the pioneers who can lead the way in helping the whole country feel as passionately about dementia care as they do. Small seeds of change do already exist within social media, with the Twitter hashtag #dementiachallengers uniting people, like me, in this common goal.
As I have often touched on, whilst I wish my father had never had dementia, his years with it gave us as a family many memories and experiences that changed our lives in a positive way, finding hidden depths to our feelings and resources, and giving us the privilege of supporting a wonderful man in his life with dementia that, whilst he would have hated it, also gave him the opportunity to show great courage, dignity, good humour and warmth in living with it.
Although much has changed since my dad’s life with dementia began, there are still significant barriers for people living with dementia today. Access to services is still very much a postcode lottery, people are often not informed or supported regarding what they are entitled to, there is not enough emphasis on providing therapeutic dementia care (through the arts for example), not enough access to some of the great design and technological advances that can improve the lives of people with dementia and those who look after them, and there are many day-to-day obstacles to overcome. Even a simple trip to the shops, or going out for a coffee, can turn into people staring at you, whispering, being unhelpful, or refusing to make allowances for the needs of someone with dementia, and that is assuming you have the resources to even get out of the house or care home to begin with.
So much can be done to remedy this, however. Organisations can train staff to become dementia aware, not just to assist customers but also as part of the pastoral role good employers should adopt in supporting their staff in their personal lives, recognising that many of their employees will have family, friends or neighbours with dementia who rely on their help. Improving customer advice and liaison roles to encompass helping people with dementia who may be disorientated, confused, aggressive or upset, simplifying signage to help people with dementia to find their way, supporting people with financial transactions, adapting menus to reflect the needs of people who require soft or purred food because of a swallowing problem, and providing toilet facilities that help carers to change incontinence pads in privacy, are just a few simple but important issues businesses can address to become more welcoming for, and understanding towards, people with dementia.
It is not just down to businesses and service providers to make our communities dementia friendly though. If everyone understood dementia, recognised the symptoms in family members, friends and neighbours, and provided a supportive environment where we look out for each other, help with simple tasks, are able and willing to call for professional help when it is needed (and for that help to be forthcoming and appropriate), and took the time to offer kindness, a listening ear, a compassionate touch and a caring outlook, then all vulnerable people, not just those with dementia, would be able to live far more fulfilling lives that offer quality and richness.
Ultimately dementia friendly communities will only exist if there is a shared will between the people, policy makers, media and businesses to make this happen. Creating communities where people with dementia are welcomed, supported and enabled to get the maximum out of life will require flexibility, forward-thinking, huge commitment and above all instilling within our society how valuable people with dementia are.
Recognising the contribution people have made in their lives prior to having dementia, celebrating that, tapping into it and helping them to be as active, healthy and happy as possible during their life with dementia will need the rest of us to show the same courage and determination that my dad, so many before him and so many right now, are showing in battling their own personal dementia challenge.
Until next time…