Care homes must become dementia-friendly places

Launching the government's dementia challenge recently, David Cameron used some pretty emotive language.

Dementia is a "one of the greatest challenges of our time" he said, a "quiet crisis" and a "terrible disease" that "steals lives and tears at the hearts of families".

Strong stuff and coming from the prime minister directly, I hope it will represent a turning point in the way we as a nation respond to dementia.

Those of us already involved in care know well the reality behind the statistics highlighted by the prime minister. Statistics that tell us, for example, that one in three people will have dementia by the time they die. And that the number of people with dementia, already costing the economy an estimated £19bn a year, will double over the next 30 years.

As a national provider of care homes, Sanctuary Care looks after growing numbers of people with dementia. And with life expectancy rates continuing to rise, this trend will only continue, changing the face of care provision and – if the government's ambitions are realised – society's perception of the disease.

Like cancer and HIV to previous generations, public awareness and understanding of dementia lags woefully behind the impact it has on people's lives.

The prime minister highlighted "shockingly low" levels of diagnosis, understanding and awareness of dementia. It's estimated more than half of people with dementia – some 58% – have not been identified as having the disease.

Equally troubling is the way dementia is viewed by the public. Among the over-55s, research tells us it is the most feared illness. But it isn't just this age group that has difficulty dealing with the disease – dementia-phobia is rife among all ages.

When a relative starts to show signs of dementia, very often family members shy away from them. They feel unsettled by changed behaviour patterns that make the person seem different to the one they know and love.

At the heart of this, is a failure to educate people about dementia. Hopefully things are starting to change, but in reality there are things all of us can and should do to help, not least those of us in the care profession.

The best care homes share their expertise with the wider community, reaching out to people by holding regular events, such as tea mornings, lunch clubs and talks.

There will be people in every community suffering from dementia and for them a care home can be a safe environment in which to socialise with people who understand their needs. By holding such events, Sanctuary Care can hopefully show them and their families, that there is a place for them to go when they need extra support.

Care homes today have to be dementia-friendly places. That means knowing the resident, talking to them and their family to find out about their life history and culture. It means creating memory boxes and activity stations with carefully selected items that have significance to residents in the home.

The five senses are also really important, particularly with people in the latter stages of dementia. Stroking a cat or a dog provides stimulation and comfort and pets are increasingly part of our care homes.

Big crowded places can be confusing and disorienting to someone with dementia. The University of Stirling has done excellent work highlighting the need to break down the living space in care homes into smaller units so people with dementia feel more comfortable in their surroundings. Simple things like having coloured doors instead of white ones and curved furniture that is less easy to bump into are also signs of a dementia-friendly care home.

But it's not just about what professionals working in the care sector can do. The prime minister's report crucially highlighted a need for the whole of society to become more dementia-friendly.

By 2015 it calls for the creation of 20 dementia-friendly cities, towns and villages that are better at enabling people with the disease to get the most out of life.

What this will mean and how it will be realised remains to be seen. In an ideal world, all cities, towns and villages should be dementia friendly. Not just in terms of infrastructure and facilities, but in the attitude of the people who live in them. For one thing is clear – we can no longer afford to let the increasing number of people affected by dementia to be ignored, stigmatised and socially isolated. And everyone has a part to play in that.

Len Merton is director of care (older persons) at Sanctuary Care, a specialist care and support provider


Sourced from The Guardian, 23rd May 2012.