With over 200 blogs on D4Dementia, some of them now 7 years old, I've decided to spend my 2019 year of blogging by re-visiting some of the topics I’ve covered previously, throwing fresh light on why they remain relevant, and updating them with some of my more recent experiences. This month, I want to look at awareness.
My first D4Dementia World Alzheimer’s Month blog in September 2012 was entitled, ‘So how much do you know about dementia?’ In the blog, which remains one of my most popular to date, I sought to bust myths about dementia and talk about what dementia had taught me. The myth-busting is particularly interesting to look back on as the blog was written before Dementia Friends - one of the key initiatives to raise awareness of dementia - was launched. Some of the messages from that blog went on to be incorporated into Dementia Friends and have become mainstream knowledge, but they are still worth repeating:
- Dementia is not a normal part of ageing (types of dementia are caused by diseases of the brain).
- There is so much more to dementia than just forgetting things (dementia symptoms are multi-faceted, vary hugely and are individual to each person).
- Dementia doesn't just happen when people get older (young onset dementia, defined as dementia in someone under 65, is increasing and dementia can even occur in children, although this is rare).
- People with dementia are still people, not a disease.
- Dementia is not contagious.
- Those living with dementia still want to lead active and full lives and not be locked away and forgotten about (most people want to be cared for at home, not in communal establishments).
- People with dementia can make a positive contribution to society if supported to do so.
- You can live well, or live as well as possible, with dementia.
I followed the myth-busting with some personal reflections about what my dad’s dementia had taught me:
- To appreciate the smallest things in life, since they become extremely precious (a simple “Hello” from my dad in his final few months brought a massive smile to my face).
- To make the most of every day (good days and bad days become an ever-present feature with dementia, and when the good ones come along you want to make the most of them).
- To never give up (yes there isn’t a cure yet, but there is a lot you can do to make someone’s life with dementia a more positive experience than it would have been ten, twenty or thirty years ago).
- Finally, in my case, to share our experiences with the world (everything my dad went through is there to inform, educate and influence others. He would have wanted to make a real and lasting difference, and hopefully through me that will be his legacy).
Despite there being seven years between writing that 2012 blog and today, and a multitude of other experiences gained primarily through my work but also from people I’ve known personally, I cannot better those last four points - they sum up so much of what I talk about regularly.
Appreciating the smallest things in life feeds into the principle of taking notice, one of the Five Ways to Wellbeing that have been pioneered by the New Economics Foundation and are widely recognised as key aspects of supporting good mental health. In 2012 I gave the example of my dad saying a simple “Hello” to me in the last months of his life, but I’ve since heard about even more precious, seemingly ‘small’ moments, not least a lady whose husband (who was living with dementia) told her he loved her - quite unexpectedly as he wasn’t given for such proclamations she said - just hours before a major stroke left him unable to speak another word for the rest of his life.
Making the most of every day was, in my dad’s case, particularly notable when we were supporting him in things that reflected the happiest memories from his life. Examples of that included listening (and singing) to music he loved, looking at books he’d enjoyed in his life (including reading a poetry book about love in the last days of his life), enjoying favourite foods (roast beef), or talking about some of his favourite memories of his life and looking at items that reflected those, which in my dad’s case were his notable achievements as a farmer. We, of course, knew my dad’s life story and so were able to facilitate all of this interaction, but for professionals currently supporting a person that they don’t know as well I would wholeheartedly recommend life story work – it really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Never giving up for me means being really person and relationship centred in your approach to supporting the person. If you spend a lot of time focusing on the big picture of dementia (the minimal treatments and lack of a cure) and the stark reality of dementia as a progressive and terminal disease, you can very quickly feel like giving up. Whereas if you get back to thinking about the person, what might make their life happier or more comfortable right now, you can find a sense of positivity and achievement. A classic example of this comes from a gentleman I met who every Friday would bring 3 roses to his wife in her care home. I was curious as to the significance of the day and the number of roses so I asked him. He said the roses (which always had to be different colours) represented their 3 children, all of whom had been born on a Friday. He said his wife couldn’t remember their names now, so the roses (roses were his wife’s favourite flower) had become her way of feeling close to her children (two of whom now lived abroad). She would hold, caress and study each of the roses and they’d have conversations about ‘red’ rose, ‘pink’ rose and ‘yellow’ rose, with him weaving in details about their children’s lives to make the conversation more meaningful.
Sharing experiences remains one of my greatest passions. Telling my dad’s story and the stories of the many other people I’ve met who are ageing and/or living with dementia is the most powerful way I’ve found in 7+ years to illustrate the health and care experiences individuals and families are having. I’ve seen first-hand how illuminating and inspiring personal experiences are for professionals involved in care and support, and I personally believe it should be mandatory for all dementia training to include these experiences. For this World Alzheimer’s Month, if you’re looking for some inspiration beyond this blog hunt down one of the many blogs, books, films or recordings that people with dementia have made or contributed to and you’ll see why nothing beats hearing from those actually LIVING with dementia.