Monday 19 March 2018

Living with dementia in a rural community

September 2017 saw the launch of the Dementia Action Alliance’s (DAA) ‘From Seldom Heard to Seen and Heard’ Campaign. The campaign focuses on people living with dementia and their families from six communities who are often marginalised from services and support: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender + (LGBT), Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), Young onset dementia, The prison population, People living in rural communities and People with learning disabilities.

I’m a national member of the DAA, and proud to have worked with the team in developing this campaign, mostly by utilizing my extensive knowledge and experience of working with people who have a learning disability and dementia. I wrote about BAME communities in my October 2017 blog, and for this post, I want to think about the challenges for people with dementia who are living in rural communities.

It’s a topic close to my heart - I’ve always lived in rural areas, and currently live over 11 miles from my nearest town. My dad was a farmer with a passion for the countryside, and he fostered my love of rural life, nature and the environment from an early age.

But whilst I love rural living, I’m also well aware that it isn’t without its challenges. Although rural communities can often be amazing at pulling together and looking after their own, there is no doubt that many people can also be very isolated and lonely if they become ‘cut off’ or reclusive.

For a person developing dementia, particularly if they live alone, that can lead to numerous problems. My dad went ten years without a diagnosis, and whilst I would be the first to admit that there were many factors that contributed to that timescale, I do wonder if living miles from healthcare services made him someone who was ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Dad’s local town was 9 miles away, and although he was on a bus route the services weren’t as frequent as in urban areas. During his 10 years without a diagnosis dad stopped driving which made him even more dependent, not only on public transport but on his family too. I didn’t learn to drive until after dad’s diagnosis, by which time he was living in a care home, so it wasn’t like I was much use on the transport front either.

Had dad received a timely diagnosis, and had services existed back then that he or I had wanted to access (groups and therapies for dad, or for me, carers services), our involvement would have been dependent upon us having suitable transport that got us to these services at the right time. For many people living in rural communities, these are sometimes problems that prove insurmountable.

Reflecting now, I also see how lucky we were that dad didn’t get into serious difficulties living surrounded by fields (the garden backed onto open farmland), ditches and streams whilst he was developing dementia. The countryside was very picturesque, but had dad decided to go out walking and then become unable to find his way home, it’s quite possible no one would have seen him, let alone found him, potentially until it was too late.

Urban areas tend to have more landmarks, in terms of buildings and points of interest. There are also many more CCTV cameras and members of the public who might see someone with dementia who has got lost whilst walking. Finding a person with dementia who is confused and disorientated in that environment is possibly easier than in the countryside.

My dad was living on the edge of a small village, so we weren’t completely cut off from civilisation, but many people living in rural areas may be far more isolated down a dirt track without another house in sight. If bad weather then hits the potential for difficulties or disasters becomes considerably greater.

Of course it isn’t just about hazards and problems. Many people living in rural areas benefit from cleaner air, more open spaces and opportunities to absorb themselves in outdoor pursuits that improve their wellbeing. Even being able to sit by a window and look out onto open fields and watch the animals and birds, enjoying how the changing seasons alter the natural landscape, is something many people in urban areas may crave.

Isolation and loneliness isn’t just reserved for individuals living in the countryside either. It’s often said that you can be surrounded by people in a town or city and yet still be the loneliest person in the world. Just because you have countless neighbours all around you, doesn’t mean anyone will actually knock on your door.

But I do firmly believe that people living with dementia in rural locations face some specific challenges, particularly around accessing services and support and remaining safe and well (although not resorting to being risk adverse), that require all of us to consider how we are reaching out to these individuals and communities and making our services and support accessible. Yes, some dementia friendly community work has happened in rural areas, but certainly not in all of them, or even the majority.

Where I live is currently undertaking a neighbourhood development plan survey, and one of the areas I’ve highlighted in the lack of retirement and extra care housing, and residential care services, for our ageing population. People who live in rural areas have every right to reside in the location of their choosing - they shouldn’t be forced to move to an urban area if they don’t want to just because their needs are changing and there is a lack of services and support in their locality.

Of course there are always challenges to find staff, and run health, social care and third sector services in rural areas that are sufficiently used that they remain viable, but as a country we need to become much more innovative about supporting people in every community, regardless of how rural they are, to lead the life they want, including when they are living with dementia.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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