Dementia Awareness Week


Date: 20th May 2016

This week is Dementia Awareness Week and Buckinghamshire New University academics Ruth Trout, Senior Lecturer in Acute Care, and Barbara Humberstone, Professor of Sociology of Sport and Outdoor Education, explain how the world can be a confusing place for people with the condition and what can be done to help improve their health and wellbeing. A man holding a photograph

Ruth says: "What is considered to be progress in an increasingly automated world can actually make life harder for those with dementia, as they struggle to learn new skills. Negotiating the 'pay at pump' option on a garage forecourt can be bewildering, for example, as can trying to communicate through thick plastic screens at post offices and ticket offices. These are not simply irritants to people with dementia; an experience can be so harrowing and embarrassing that the person recoils from attempting it again which may lead to social isolation.

"Small changes can make a huge difference to an individual's independence. For example, taking a bus to a local shop each day can be a positive way for a person with dementia to remain connected with society. But if the bus stop is moved 100 yards further down the road, the new position cannot be learned. Most people would stop making the journey.

"There needs to be a greater understanding about dementia, especially for those who work in public-facing roles. Buckinghamshire New University is working with Central London Community Healthcare Trust to train Dementia Champions who will develop their practice though a combination of study days and a work-based project. They will become ambassadors, sharing their knowledge with colleagues and improving the experiences of patients with dementia. It is important that reception staff, porters and catering teams are aware that they have as important a role to play as healthcare professionals in helping people with dementia to feel secure and supported."

Ruth explains: "I'm delighted to be working with the Central London Community Healthcare Trust, an example of one of the many Trusts that is committed to improving the experience for patients with dementia. Sadly this is not the case across the whole of the UK. More needs to be done to ensure that patients with dementia accessing services and care at hospitals, clinics and GP surgeries interact with people who understand the issues they face and are equipped with the relevant knowledge and skills to best help them. And this need for awareness extends to other areas of society including the emergency services, retail sector and public transport.

"Even small steps can make a big difference. Signage can be a major problem for people with dementia due to perceptual difficulties; if a sign has a white background and is placed on a white wall it becomes 'invisible' which can cause confusion and anxiety when attempting to navigate around an unfamiliar place. Making society a less frightening place is imperative, as keeping social is key to enhancing the lives of people with dementia."

While all the research evidence points to physical activity having mental and physical benefits, particularly as people get older, Professor Humberstone explains it is too simplistic to suggest that any form of exercise or any form of provision is beneficial to people with dementia. "Although leading a physically active lifestyle can have a significant impact on the wellbeing of people with dementia, the activities should be enjoyable and appropriate for each person. As with any disability, people with dementia need to enjoy the physical activity in which they partake and research shows doing so is clearly beneficial to their health and wellbeing."

"Walking is one of the best all-round exercises, it's free and the only equipment required is a pair of comfortable shoes. Walking can also help people with Alzheimer's to work off a restless urge to wander that is typical of this form of dementia. Even gardening, such as raking, can be a good form of exercise as long as there is someone on hand to help if necessary."

Socialisation can also be achieved through non-physical activities, as Ruth outlines: "Many patients with dementia have valuable interactions in day centres and, for some, this may be a better focus for activities to encourage socialisation than an outdoor activity. Studies show that music therapy, such as listening to hymns or songs they enjoyed in their younger years, can be particularly effective in unlocking memories for those who have become isolated through difficulties with communication. Patients can be prone to stop wanting to communicate because it can be so hard and frustrating to do so. Pet therapy, old films and familiar objects can help to override this frustration and encourage communication."

"Activities can also play a significant part in dealing with the challenging behaviours associated with dementia. There are benefits to using old photos and introducing familiar items from home, such as a favourite chair, in acute wards to help relax a dementia patient when they are angry or anxious. Knowing how to calm or divert a person when they are distressed is important for carers of patients with dementia."

As Ruth concludes: "The benefits of physical activity for patients with dementia in terms of socialisation, improving mood, sleep patterns and mental wellbeing are evident but it's important to find the right activity, at the right time for each patient. Similarly, we must not underestimate the benefits that non-physical activity can also bring in terms of unlocking positive memories, improving communication and alleviating the frustrations of a patient living with dementia. Underpinning the drive to improve socialisation is a need for greater awareness of dementia and a commitment by all to make society an easier place to navigate for people with dementia.

Buckinghamshire New University offers a course in 'Understanding Dementia' which is designed for patients living with the condition as well as their relatives and carers.


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