Monday 19 September 2016

Life story work – The gift that keeps on giving

One of the loveliest aspects of becoming a parent has been taking our daughter on various trips to meet her extended family. On one such trip we were given a gift, not of a teddy or a baby outfit, but a book with memories of her granddad.

Regular readers of D4Dementia will know that the joy of having our daughter last year was tinged with the sadness that my dad will never meet her. He would have loved being a granddad, and I can only picture in my mind the huge smile and tears of joy and emotion that he would have had as he cuddled her for the first time.

The memory book we were given was something last discussed at my dad's funeral. My cousin promised to look out some photos, and write down memories he knew of from my dad's early life, and I was so touched to find that promise was still remembered over 4 years since we laid my dad to rest.

The book comprises old letters and photographs, alongside my cousin's account of memories from my dad’s childhood and early adulthood. Some details I already knew, but it’s fascinating to read about the places my dad visited, and some of the things he did with his parents and siblings. Dad’s regular routines in his young life, which probably seemed very mundane back then, provide a captivating insight and conjure up pictures in my mind of dad on his motorbike, singing songs around the fire and visiting favourite pubs.

I've written before about the value we had from life story work while my dad was alive, specifically the memory box we made for him. The creation of that box was a wonderful process, displaying it made us very proud, and the discussions sparked by the contents gave joy and pleasure over and over again. It truly was the gift that just kept on giving, and still does to this day, positioned next to my work desk.

For me, that last sentence really gets to the heart of the ‘point’ of life story work. Its value when the person is alive is well documented, but it remains just as valuable, perhaps more so, when the person is no longer with us. Keeping a relative's memory alive, and being able to remember them in happy times, having fun and living their life, gives a very comforting perspective on the loss you feel of your loved one.

The links between life story work and good dementia care are well established. Of particular note is the fact that life story work is hugely important no matter how well you know a person, hence its value for families and professional care staff alike.

If you know a person well, it can help to guide your mutual reminiscence and pride in your loved one’s life and achievements, as well as triggering conversations about favourite sports, music and films etc. If you are a professional who doesn’t know the person so well, life story work is like a window into their world, helping to guide and inform you as you provide care and support for them.

If the person has limited communication skills it enables you to gently prompt conversation. You may also find it beneficial when trying to soothe someone feeling anxious or upset, to lift their mood if they are feeling down, or to bring out the best in the person when they are having a good day and just need a few little prompts to spark off memories they can enjoy.

Life story work is as diverse as the society we live in, and we can all participate - no matter who you are, you have a life story. You might not think it's very exciting, but everyone has something worth sharing and something they can feel proud of. Indeed, one of the best ways to get staff involved in life story work for the people they are supporting is to begin by showcasing their own life stories.

Purely co-incidentally, in my consultancy work with care providers I have various clients who are either embarking upon, or trying to strengthen, life story work within their services at the moment. Different approaches are being utilised, which is precisely what I am encouraging - as in all aspects of dementia care, one-size-fits-all doesn't work.

Templates, guidance and resources are abundant on the internet for anyone looking to begin life story work, but in truth it's not about the format or model you access to help guide yours or someone else's life story work. The most important drivers for creating, maintaining and evolving a life story resource are enthusiasm, inspiration and commitment.

You have to see and believe in the value of life story work or it will simply become a nice 'project' that's started and possibly ended (or abandoned). In reality, life story work is a continuum. The best examples of it are never completed, much like that book we were given about my dad. He is no longer with us to benefit from it himself, but current and future generations can enjoy it and continue to add to it – there are still many blank pages to fill.

Given that this year’s World Alzheimer’s Month - or World Dementia Month as I feel it should be called - is themed around ‘Remember Me’, there seems no more fitting call to action for us all with World Alzheimer’s Day approaching on 21 September than to reflect on the place life story work has in our own world and that of our loves ones. Documenting memories and turning them into vibrant resources that tell their own unique story has a magical quality about it that I can’t put into words – you really just have to try it.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Monday 5 September 2016

Is it World Alzheimer's Month, or World Dementia Month?

I should begin this blog by saying I am fully supportive of awareness-raising initiatives aimed at educating, informing and supporting people who are living with any type of dementia, their families, health and care professionals, communities and societies.

The biggest of these, purely for its global scale, is World Alzheimer's Month, organised and promoted by Alzheimer's Disease International. It is more than just semantics, however, to question the history behind the naming of this month of awareness-raising, and the signals our words send out.

Globally, Alzheimer's is a term used in many countries to describe any and every type of dementia. The problem is that technically this is wrong. Dementia is the umbrella term, and Alzheimer's Disease is a type dementia, one of over 100. Granted Alzheimer's Disease is statistically the most prevalent type of dementia, but there are still millions of people living with other types of dementia.

In the first ever dementia-related conference I attended after my dad passed away in 2012, one of the questions to the panel was why the UK Alzheimer's Society wasn't called the Dementia Society? Apart from the fact that such a change of name would be extremely similar to Dementia UK (another UK charity), the main reason given was the complexity of such a renaming exercise in terms of branding and public awareness.

I understand both the reasoning of the questioner at that conference and the logic of the person answering them. And I suspect a similar answer would fit to the question about why World Alzheimer's Month is so named, and Alzheimer's Disease International, and potentially every other Alzheimer's organisation around the world that carries the world Alzheimer’s in its title rather than dementia.

It can, however, seem very confusing for people who are new to the 'dementia world’, and very isolating for anyone who is diagnosed with a different type of dementia. Moreover, whilst it might be challenging for organisations to rebrand, there really isn't any excuse for commentators, media professionals and others who use Alzheimer's as a blanket term instead of dementia.

One of the biggest problems with Alzheimerisation (a term that I'm using in this context to describe how the word 'Alzheimer’s' replaces 'dementia') is how it alters people's perceptions of what is, and isn't, possible for people who are living with other types of dementia. For example, I vividly remember the following conversation with a lady who was struggling to understand what vascular dementia was:

Ms X: "But there are treatments for Alzheimer's, why wasn't your dad given some pills."
Me: "My dad had vascular dementia - Alzheimer's medications aren't licensed for people with vascular dementia."
Ms X: "But vascular dementia is just another type of Alzheimer's isn't it?"
Me: "No it isn't. Vascular dementia and Alzheimer's Disease are just two types of over 100 different types of dementia."
Ms X: "So what is dementia then, isn't it just another name for Alzheimer's?"
Me: "No. Dementia is the umbrella term of all of the different types of dementia, of which Alzheimer's Disease is just one."

To be fair to Ms X she wanted to learn, but rather than finding my explanation illuminating you could clearly see that she was mentally unpicking everything she'd previously believed to be accurate, and was wondering why on earth we talk so much about Alzheimer's Disease when it is just one type of dementia.

I first touched on how the word 'Alzheimer’s' replaces 'dementia' in my 2012 blog ‘So how much do you know about dementia’ – A post where I went on to bust lots of myths about dementia. Some of those myths have received some fairly high-profile coverage since, not least through the Dementia Friends initiative, but the Alzheimerisation of dementia remains very prevalent, and I suspect it always will be.

I would be the first to admit that such an outcome isn’t the worst news in the world if messages that developing a type of dementia isn’t a normal part of ageing, that it isn’t just older people who develop the different types of dementia, and that there is so much more to the person than their diagnosis of a type of dementia become imprinted into the public consciousness and drive real and lasting change that is positive and enabling for people who have a type of dementia.

But I still think we can do more, go further, and make sure that the messages we put out don’t just appear to be confined to people who are affected by Alzheimer’s Disease. I have been an outspoken advocate of changing the words we use around dementia, and will continue to be, but for Alzheimerisation to be reduced everyone needs to play their part.

So, as you take up this World Alzheimer’s Month theme of ‘Remember Me’, it’s a timely reminder to remember that Alzheimer’s Disease is just one type of dementia.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886