We are living in a society where many people are fortunate enough to have long lives. However, as we age, we become more susceptible to various health conditions such as dementia. According to Alzheimer’s UK there are around 900,000 people in the UK living with dementia, so it’s likely that most of us know, or know of, someone who has been diagnosed with the condition.
As dementia is a progressive condition, people can still live well with it and often remain in the community for many years. To help raise awareness of dementia and how to help those diagnosed with the condition Alzheimer’s UK set up Dementia Friends. Here Regional Support Manager (RSM), Chris Nicholson, explains the concept behind Dementia Friends and how he became involved.
Dementia Friends is an initiative to raise awareness and understanding of dementia and all the symptoms that go with it. They are set up to try to give people the skills, and the basic knowledge of dementia, to help people in all their daily settings. Once you become a Dementia Friend you get a little badge with a nice forget-me-not flower on it as well so you can let people know you’re a member.
I got involved with the scheme back in my pharmacy days. As well as being a Dementia Friend, you can become a Dementia Friends champion which I did. This means you are able to hold training sessions with other people and train them to be the same as you, so they can champion the scheme too. It’s a way of heightening awareness of dementia in the workplace especially.
Being a Dementia Friend was really relevant when I was based in a pharmacy as we’d see a lot of people who potentially may have dementia. Their behaviour could be out of the ordinary, so it was a question of being more aware of that. Especially in certain situations, such as when someone was paying for something, and we were taking money off them. We had to be careful as people with dementia might not recognise the difference between a £20 note and a £10 note. They might see them as being the same and so they might hand over more money than is required. In a situation like that it’s about not making an issue out of things. It’s more a case of just giving them the correct change rather than making a thing of it.
Also, people with dementia might not recognise themselves in a mirror. You may see them just standing on the shop floor looking into a mirror, not realising who they are. This can be something that’s quite relevant in dental practices. Dentists often use a mirror to show the patients what’s been done or needs doing. Someone with dementia may look strangely at it or react weirdly to it because they don’t recognise themselves. So, Dementia Friends is about being aware of things like that. And it’s relatable to all workplaces, really.
To become a Dementia Friend, you sign up via their website. There are a couple of videos on there where they talk about understanding dementia. And one in particular hit home to me. It uses a bookcase analogy.
So, imagine I’m an 80-year-old man with dementia, and next to me is a bookcase, which is as tall and as wide as me. And that holds all my facts and my memories from my life. Starting at the top is what’s happened today, such as what I had for breakfast. And as we go down the shelves, they hold the information from my sixties, fifties and all the way down to the bottom shelf where it’s my childhood. As dementia hits, it rocks that bookcase. And the part of the brain it’s rocking is called the hippocampus. As the bookcase is rocked the books from the top shelves start to fall out. And, as it gets worse, more books fall out and I could end up living with my knowledge from, say, the 1950s.
So, if I wanted to make myself a cup of tea, I might believe I have to do it 1950s-style. These days we have electric kettles. But back in the 1950s people had kettles with whistles and they put them on the stove top. So, I might put the electric kettle on the stove which might cause a fire. So, if you’re a carer for someone in these circumstances, what do you do? Do you take the kettle away from the person so they can’t do that again? Or do you get a whistle kettle to adapt to the person’s situation?
And then there’s another part of the brain that’s affected by dementia, the amygdala, which is on the other side of the brain from the hippocampus. In this case, it’s a really solid bookcase. And it holds all the thoughts and feelings. And when dementia hits that, it rocks, but the books don’t fall out as quickly as they do in the hippocampus. So, the analogy here is if you went to the seaside for a day and had a great day, but in the car on the way home, you forgot where you’d been. And as a carer or a family member, you may think: “Well that was pointless. Why did we do that? Because you don’t remember it.” However, the thoughts and feelings of being happy on the day out, and the joy are all still there, it’s just that the book on the hippocampus bookshelf, the factual event, has fallen out. So, that training video on the bookshelves hit home with me because it’s relatable.
I think Dementia Friends is a great initiative and it’s something that we should all be aware of. Dementia is not just something that affects older people. There are around 42,000 people under 65 living with dementia. So, there are a lot of people we could be looking out for. Dementia Friends is such a good idea and it’s really easy to join. It’s so simple to spread the word about it. I’ve always been a bit of an advocate of it and I’d encourage other people to join.