At least 1 in 14 people aged over 65 have developed some form of dementia. That’s a surprising statistic, isn’t it? It was just one of many facts shared by volunteers from the Alzheimer’s Society’s ‘Dementia Friends’ initiative, at Shaftesbury Town Hall on Wednesday night.
They called the meeting to encourage Shaftesbury to follow Gillingham in becoming a dementia friendly community. “I think that Shaftesbury has every chance to do it,” said ‘dementia champion’, volunteer Annie Kings. Annie led a presentation about the condition, which tackled myths and misconceptions.
She was joined by her colleague Hilary as the pair explained how dementia affects everyone differently. They illustrated this by comparing the changes in people’s brains to Christmas tree fairy lights. “They are all beautifully working when we put them away but when we get them down in November the following year some of them do not work. That’s how dementia attacks the cells of the brain. They flicker. They go on and off. Some days are better than other days. No two people are the same. When you seen one person with dementia, you’ve seen just one person with dementia,” said Annie.
There was practical advice on what we can do to help and support people with dementia. In Gillingham, a group of trained volunteers has been encouraging businesses and community organisations to make changes to their premises or their operations to improve the experience of people with dementia.
Councillor John Lewer gave the project his personal support. “It’s one of those things that is easy not to notice. People with dementia don’t stand out. They have a quiet, reclusive life that could be made better by a bit of awareness. That’s the key word. If people are aware of the problems, they can make allowances and make life better for them. That’s the purpose of becoming a dementia friend and the purpose of making the town dementia friendly.”
Annie spent the morning visiting businesses around Shaftesbury to see whether they would be interested in training their staff in dementia awareness or backing a bid to declare the town dementia friendly. The idea was well received. Annie told the meeting that she believed Shaftesbury is ahead of where Gillingham was when that town began their journey towards accreditation.
John Lewer was pleased to hear that. “I will move heaven and earth to try and make it happen,” he said. “It certainly makes me more optimistic about the promises that were made last year when I was mayor. It was my ambition to make Shaftesbury officially dementia friendly. I’ve not made much progress in the last twelve months for various reasons but I am determined to see it through. My ambition is to find a couple of dementia champions, the people who give these courses, and the people who contact these various organisations in order to get a timetable going against which we can be judged as dementia friendly,” said John.
So is John looking for volunteers who would lead this? “Yes, effectively. If there are people who can give time, then that’s the key to the success of it. I know that Sara Jacson has been a key player over the last few years in trying to get this started. She’s another busy person. It’s a matter of finding people who can give their time and to set up targets which can be met,” he said.
In Gillingham, the volunteers have taken on specific roles. “One of my colleagues, Julie, deals with the town matters, the Council and those sort of things. I’ve focused on businesses and retail because that’s my background. Hilary is good with nursing homes because that’s been her life. If you can find your niche and work at that, that’s good. Just don’t be afraid to ask people,” Annie said.
Annie says they’ve successfully improved the presentation of bus timetables for routes around the town. “Certainly with early onset dementia, people may forget their bus number. The timetables are being changed so they have both a number and a photograph of the bus that will come to pick you up. People know they’ve got on the right bus by looking at the photo. It’s difficult to keep up with because bus companies always change the buses but we’ve certainly had good feedback.”
That required a number of meetings and discussions but anybody with a business or premises where the public visit can make helpful changes, right now. Annie started with flooring. There is one colour that is particularly problematic. “Blue is a difficult colour because people with any form of dementia will often see that as water. Shiny floors can also often look like they are slippery. And we always say to people that black mats are a ‘no no’ because they just represent a hole,” Annie said. Green flooring is fine however, because it might be seen as grass. People are generally happy to step onto a lawn or a field.
If you have friends or family members with dementia, Annie says they might lose many of their recent memories and appear to be living in the past, discussing people and events that were important to them twenty or more years ago. Although it might feel odd and uncomfortable, Annie says you should ‘live in their reality’. “You have to try and remember that the person living with dementia is living where the brain is. If they have lost ten or twenty years of memory, they are living in a time twenty years ago. Nothing you can do is going to help them. You could remind them a dozen times but you need to step into that time with them.”
So if your relative is talking about people and places from the 1970s, you should pretend that you are in the 1970s as well. “You may have lived in the same house for ten years but it’s no good assuming they’re going to remember which key goes in to which door. Step into their reality. You need to put the colour on each door and put an appropriate, corresponding colour on the key. That will help them to live well with their dementia,” Annie explained.
Annie offered the group a personal experience of her mother’s dementia. “I didn’t do it at the time but I realise now that she had forgotten how to use teabags. She had gone back in her memory to a time when she used to use loose tea. The fact that she once knew how to use teabags had gone.”
Annie wishes she just bought her mother loose tea instead. She felt that her mum would have been able to make a cuppa using that without difficulties. The clear message was that people with dementia often retain the skills and abilities that they gained earlier in their lives, the period they still remember. That’s ‘living in their reality.’
John Lewer believes that accreditation as a dementia friendly town will also send the right message to our visitors. “It can only be good for the town in the eyes of people who are contemplating coming here on holiday. It’s up to the town to demonstrate it can look after people in this way.”
If you’re interested in becoming involved with this project, contact Shaftesbury Town Council or contact Annie Kings at AnniemKings2@btinternet.com.