Monday 17 December 2018

Resolve to tackle loneliness

“It’ll be lonely this Christmas
Without you to hold
It'll be lonely this Christmas
Lonely and cold.”

So sang English glam rock band Mud (in the style of Elvis Presley) to top the UK singles chart in 1974, selling over 750,000 copies and reaching Christmas number one.

44 years later, and as this song joins the throngs of Christmas music on the airwaves for another year, I’ve found myself wondering if we might ever reduce the estimated 9 million+ people in the UK who are said to be ‘always or often lonely’ to closer to the number of copies this song sold back in 1974. If we could, that would mean 8,250,000 less lonely people.

The 9 million+ statistic came from research by The British Red Cross earlier this year. They described the figure as representing ‘epidemic levels of loneliness and social isolation’, and few could argue with that assessment. It’s a hugely negative reflection on our modern-day society, and ironically comes in an age where we’ve never had so much connectivity through technology and yet so many of us feel more isolated than ever before.

The reasons for loneliness in the UK are many and varied, with commentators sighting everything from social media use to poor work-life cultures. I personally feel that the English 'stiff upper lip' culture also plays a role - not wanting to admit you feel lonely or isolated, fear of being rejected if you do seek help or support or even just reach out to someone you know who may themselves be too caught up in life to respond to you in the way you hope they might, and feeling compelled to hold all of your feelings and worries within you.

Amongst those most vulnerable to isolation and loneliness are older people, those living with long-term health conditions, including dementia, and those who provide care and support for a loved one. The very nature of ageing means you lose friends and family as your peers pass away, and of course living with dementia can pose such significant challenges with social interaction that many people would rather avoid it, particularly if they haven't managed to connect with like-minded individuals through peer support (examples of peer-support groups for people with dementia include DEEP and DAI).

Indeed, such is the risk of isolation and loneliness for people with dementia that the Dementia Action Alliance 'Dementia Statements' (that I wrote about in August 2017) specifically say, "We have the right to continue with day-to-day and family life, without discrimination or unfair cost, to be accepted and included in our communities and not live in isolation or loneliness." 

It’s also worth remembering that social isolation is thought to increase a person’s risk of developing dementia, hence why the importance of social interaction is highlighted as a potential preventative measure. With this in mind, in my training for care providers I talk to social care staff about the dangers of isolation and loneliness amongst the people they support and we discuss ways this can be combatted.

While staff who provide support to people in their own homes are often much more aware of the risks posed by isolation and loneliness, as many of their clients live alone, care home staff often haven’t considered that loneliness might be a significant factor in the lives of the people that they are supporting, simply because they assume that if a person is living in a communal environment they won’t be lonely. Yet quite the opposite is true - some of the loneliest people in the world are those in a room full of other people, and a bedroom can be a very isolating place if you don’t feel able, or cannot through physical or mental health issues, come out of that room to socialise with your peers.

With the festive season seen as a particularly isolating time of year, many charities and organisation are again voicing their concerns about loneliness. Last week Age UK published analysis that said 1.7 million older people in England can go for a month without meeting up with a friend, and that 300,000 over 65s have not had a conversation with family or friends over the same period. They also said that half a million older people across the UK are likely to feel lonely this Christmas, with more than 230,000 older people expected to be on their own for at least one day over the Christmas period (from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day).

After Christmas, I predict that there will be more reports of helplines receiving record numbers of calls over the festive period. Last Christmas, The Silver Line – the only free, 24-hour, national helpline for lonely and isolated older people open all year round – reported that Christmas 2017 was their busiest ever, with over 14000 calls made to their helpline, around 1000 more than during Christmas 2016. Their greatest spike in calls was on New Year’s Day, with 1773 callers – up 14% on January 1st 2017. 

So how is loneliness being tackled? The response ranges from the Campaign to End Loneliness to the legacy work in memory of Jo Cox MP, alongside the UK government appointing the world’s first Minister for Loneliness (Tracey Crouch, who later resigned her position over an unrelated matter), and the publication of England’s first Loneliness Strategy.

But despite all of this, loneliness remains a huge issue. In the run up to Christmas 2015, I wrote for the UK Huffington Post about a campaign Friends of the Elderly were running about loneliness, and now here we are in 2018 and I have even more campaigns I could write about, which suggests we aren’t really making significant progress.

Why? Because to tackle loneliness we all have to do our bit. High profile initiatives, whilst very welcome and often packing a significant punch, can’t on their own make any individual feel less lonely, or persuade each of us to do something to help combat loneliness amongst our family members, friends, neighbours and acquaintances.

That ‘something’ doesn't have to be a huge action, it can be really small. At this time of year, just sending a Christmas card to someone you know says “I’m thinking of you.” If that person is older, not local to you, not on email and you don’t have an up-to-date phone number for them, a card is a simple way to reach out. Or for people who don’t want to write Christmas cards, donate to one of the charities that help to support people who are at risk of isolation and loneliness.

Of course there is no simple fix to the UK’s loneliness problem - a cuppa with your neighbour or having a festive clear-out and donating your unwanted items to a charity that supports people who are isolated and lonely won’t banish loneliness for every isolated person. But as you think of your New Year’s resolutions, bear in mind that a resolution to do your bit to tackle the UK’s loneliness epidemic is something that is achievable for all of us and might just make someone’s day (as well as yours).

Thank you for all your support in 2018. Until 2019...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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Monday 19 November 2018

Bringing the generations together

There have been few documentaries I’ve enjoyed as much as Channel 4’s ‘Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds’. For me it ticked every box - it featured some amazing older people (the oldest was 102) and pre-school children (the youngest was 3), it looked at ageing, social care, healthcare, education and child development, it demonstrated innovation combined with scientific rigour, and best of all, it featured some really positive outcomes for the older people and the children involved.

It’s no surprised I loved the programme given the 9 years my dad spent in care homes, the work I do now with older people and those who provide care and support for them, and as a mum to a preschooler, my current immersion in the world of early years education. 

The seed for my enthusiasm for intergenerational work was sown watching my dad light up whenever children visited other residents in his care home. Sadly though, the time many of these children spent in the home was brief and their visits sporadic, so my dad never really had the chance to fully benefit from their presence, unlike the 10 older people featured in Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds.

In our household, this documentary was particularly timely - in the weeks it aired we were settling our daughter into pre-school. It hasn’t been the easiest transition for her, but I am absolutely certain given her relationship with my mum (who is 79), that had she had the option to go into an early-years educational establishment that meant she shared her pre-school time with older people she would have settled a lot quicker.

The synergies for me don’t end there either. In an attempt to help our daughter settle into pre-school life I made her a memory book, which I’m gradually filling up with photos of all the adventures that we’ve had this year. A memory book for an (almost) 3-year-old - They are for older people (and people living with dementia) right? Wrong! They are amazing at every age and stage of life, and the book has been phenomenal for our daughter. It's given her pages of lovely familiar photos to comfort her and prompt her to talk about her adventures, and it's enabled her teachers to get to know her so much quicker and easier.

In essence, we are actually informally running our own mini intergenerational experiment in our house. My mum lives with us, and although I don't have scientists or experts measuring the effects of this for our daughter and my mum, I can informally categorically say that our daughter’s communication, reading, interactions and skills-set have benefitted so much from extensive time with her Granny, and for my mum, our daughter has physically and mentally challenged her, kept her going and brought so much joy, excitement and unpredictability into her life.

If my mum was living alone she would have had none of this, and would have been much more isolated and potentially lonely, as many of her peers sadly are. Meanwhile for our daughter, with the best will in the world, she would never have had as many books read to her or enjoyed so many other little learning experiences without Granny around every day. 

So, what do we learn from Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds and my own domestic life? For me it’s that keeping generations in silos is so outdated. I’m not saying that arrangements like those shown on Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds would work for every older person or indeed every preschooler. Some older people wouldn't want that level of noise, interaction and energy around them. Equally, some preschoolers may prefer to only be with their peers or adults of their parent’s age.

But there needs to be much more choice for everyone who would benefit. Older people who would like to interact with preschoolers could find a new purpose in life, teaching and supporting children to learn, and keeping themselves physically and mentally active into the bargain. Meanwhile preschoolers, who may have busy working parents and live long distances from their own grandparents, could benefit from the patience and time less hurried older people may be able to provide. And that, of course, is to say nothing of the exchange of wisdom that would be happening. 

For those with a less practical, romantic vision who are only interested in hard facts, muse on this. Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds showed significant physical and mental improvements in the older people over the 3-months of this experiment, all of which could potentially cut the costs associated with their health and care needs. Examples included:
  • 102-year-old Sylvia going from being classed as frail at the beginning of the experiment to being no longer classed as frail at the end of the 3-months. Sylvia's cognitive health tests also improved by +3 points.
  • 97-year-old Victor improved his depression score by +3.
  • 81-year-old Lavinia went from taking 495 steps per day to 1750 later in the experiment, and this despite a fall during the 3-months.
And overall amongst the older participants:
  • 5/10 improved their balance.
  • 9/10 improved their grip strength (an indicator of overall health).
  • Almost half of the volunteers reduced their risk of falling.

The children also showed improvements, including the youngest child, Zach, improving his personal and social interactions and use of language, and Mason improving his sense of what it means to be an older person and developing his ability to nurture and be empathetic. Indeed, such is the impact of this experiment that The ExtraCare Charitable Trust, who run Lark Hill Retirement Village where Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds was filmed, have committed to a lasting legacy for the project that will see a rolling six week intergenerational activity programme for Lark Hill residents and children from its neighbouring nurseries.

I can see so many positives in intergenerational approaches, and in the 6+ years I’ve done the work I do now I don’t think anything has excited me as much as the potential for bringing the older and younger generations together. The possibilities seem almost endless to my eager brain which is desperate to see new initiatives for the youngest and oldest in our society.

I feel we have become very stale, very staid, in our approaches to supporting people at the polar opposites of the age spectrum and it saddens me. For older people, they don’t necessarily have years to wait to get the care and support that they need, to alleviate their loneliness, to give them purpose and a reason to live the best life that they can. And for our youngest citizens, their brains are alive with possibility and opportunity, just waiting for us to ignite their imagination and feed them with the facts about anything and everything that makes up the world we live in.

For me there is no time to waste. No ifs, no buts. I’m proud that in our own little way through our domestic life that we are doing this as a family, but I would love to hear from any individuals or organisations who want to do intergenerational work like that shown on Old People’s Home for 4 Year Olds at scale. For our older and younger citizens, let’s make this happen!

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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Monday 15 October 2018

What to do for 'the best'

Last year I wrote a popular blog post entitled ‘Five things I wish I'd known before my dad's dementia’. Point two was entitled ‘What to do for the best’ and said:
"The great problem when my dad was living with dementia is that I wasn't a researcher, or an observer of all things 'dementia'. I never Googled what other people's dad's who were living with dementia really enjoyed. Nor did I attend dementia groups, access social media extensively, or read dementia books or blogs (so the fact that you are reading this means you are one step ahead of where I was!). 
I learnt what worked for my dad eventually but it was often through trial and error, and when I think back so much time was wasted. For example, I would never have persevered with ensuring my dad had TV in his room: in hindsight I would have scrapped the TV on day one and replaced it with the CD player and music collection that brought infinitely more joy to his life. I’d have made the environmental changes that personalised dad’s room much quicker, and the life story work staff asked for my help with and I took ages to dig out photos and make the memory box, I’d have done that quicker too. 
We'd buy things, like CD's, for birthdays and Christmases thinking it was nice to space out the gifts. Big mistake. Dementia is terminal, you are 'on the clock' as it were. Get as many lovely things as you can afford and enjoy every single one of them as soon as possible so you have them for as long as possible. My dad was never into big birthday or Christmas celebrations, and looking back maybe he was onto something with that."
I often receive emails from family members outlining their situation and asking me what to do for 'the best', and my ‘Five things I wish I'd known before my dad's dementia’ post prompted a few more of those emails, so here are my thoughts on what to do for 'the best':

Don’t beat yourself up

Wanting to know what to do for ‘the best’ is a really common feeling that most of us have in relation to a variety of situations. A natural human instinct is to want to avoid getting things ‘wrong’, but when I was growing up my parents always said: “He who never made a mistake never made anything.” There is no such thing as the perfect way to support a loved one with dementia, so don’t beat yourself up.

'The best' in your situation is unique to your situation

Whenever anyone asks me what is for 'the best' in relation to their loved one with dementia my opening suggestion is always to remember that ‘the best’ in your situation will be unique to your situation. My best, your best and everyone else’s best is entirely individual to them. This phrase really underpins that: “When you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met one person with dementia.” Ultimately, there is no definitive rule book on what the best care and support looks like - I was guided more by instinct than knowledge, and sometimes that’s no bad thing.

Sometimes a desire to do our ‘best’ can lead to our worst

Reading the accounts of people living with dementia in the last few years has made me realise that as care partners we can unintentionally become very caught up in the desire to do our ‘best’, sometimes stifling the person with dementia, disabling or disempowering them, which is far from 'the best' for anyone but hard to recognise when we are living in the moment. I’ve only really learnt this lesson as a result of following the work of empowerment groups like DEEP and DAI, realising the 'I'm doing this for the best' trap is easy to fall into and one I fell into myself with my dad sometimes.

As Wendy Mitchell says in her book, 'Somebody I used to know':
"They were one of those typical couples, the ones where the wife takes the lead; she takes his coat from his arms, she folds it over, sits him down, checks on him - once, twice - then goes off to fetch a cup of tea. I see it a lot, wherever I go. I know they're only trying to help, so why does it always look to me as if these husbands - or wives - are so much more advanced in their disease than me, someone who has no one to fetch and carry for me, to finish my sentences, to decide that I can't even manage the small chores that are still very much physically and mentally possible."
Being the best YOU can be is enough

I was by my own admission far from perfect in supporting my dad, but I was the best I could be, and I’ve realised since dad's death that you can be no more than that. When dad was alive the decisions came thick and fast, from small things to big things and everything in-between. I would constantly wonder, “Is this for the best?” about everything from signing a consent form to deliberating about medication, or taking the ‘risk’ of supporting dad to eat when healthcare professionals questioned if he could cope with anything orally due to his dysphagia. Comparing yourself to others, as I’ve known some relatives to do, will only lead to feelings of failure, or the opposite - an exalted view of how great you are at supporting your loved one. Neither is helpful. This quote sums it up perfectly:

Coping with the feeling you haven’t done your 'best'

Sometimes I run information and knowledge session for the relatives of people who are supported by care providers. These often involve a lot of sharing of our individual stories, and sometimes become understandably very emotional for all of us. One of the biggest contributors to not feeling you are doing or have done 'the best' for your loved one is when professional care and support is needed. My view: asking for help doesn't mean you're a failure. We desperately need to move away from the rhetoric that being a family carer means doing everything for your loved one, alone, for the rest of their life, no matter what. Doing your 'best' should never be a byword for burning yourself out.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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Monday 17 September 2018

A celebration of what is possible

As another September brings World Alzheimer’s Month, there is always the temptation to write a blog that points out how much we still need to do to improve awareness, care and support for people who are living with dementia and their families and friends.

For this World Alzheimer’s Month, however, I have cause for celebration. Over 6 years ago I began D4Dementia to, “Provide support and advice to those faced with similar situations (to those we faced with my dad), inform and educate care professionals and the wider population, promote debate and create improvements in dementia care.” My inspiration was to share some of the positive aspects of my dad’s life and for others to learn from them. As I wrote more posts, I also shared aspects of my dad’s care and support that weren’t good enough, again with the intention that others may learn something. As the years have gone by I’ve diversified from blogging to do more and more training and mentoring to make that mission real, and in September 2018 my educational work has achieved the quality mark of Skills for Care Endorsement.

For many people who already have endorsement or another accreditation this may seem routine, but for me it’s something I never imagined was possible. I’m not an academic, backed by a major educational institution. I’m a former carer to my dad, and everything I’ve done since he died has been based on our experiences - a regular family turned upside down by dementia.

I wanted to create a legacy for my dad that wasn’t about mourning his loss however keenly I still feel it, or about beating a drum of hate for the people who let him down so badly when he was at his most vulnerable. I wanted to create positive change - I felt passionately then, as I do now, that if I could help just one person living with dementia, or one family supporting a loved one with dementia, or one professional working in dementia care and support, to find the information and advice that they needed then I’d done something amazing.

I’ve since read and heard similar aspirations from so many other people affected by dementia, most notably recently from reading Wendy Mitchell’s phenomenal book, ‘Somebody I used to know’. The desire to help just one person, to scatter crumbs of hope and positivity, however small those crumbs might be and however uncertain you are of how far they might travel, gives those of us who’ve had any sort of experience of dementia a feeling that there is something good that can come out of a diagnosis and a reality that changes life forever, and in my dad’s case robbed us of him far earlier than we might otherwise have been.

Reflecting on my endorsement as a training provider, it isn’t just for me. It’s not just for my dad either, although I hope and believe that he would be very proud. It’s for every person who’s ever felt a passion to use their experiences of dementia, or any other health condition, to help others but have wondered if A) anyone would be interested in their experiences, and B) whether they have the courage or confidence to share them.

I think we are conditioned from an early age - thanks to the school system - to view education as something delivered by people with far more qualifications than us in institutions with a track record of producing learning that is intended to equip students for whatever life holds for them. Little value is placed on lived experience, which is why I always dismissed applying for any quality mark for my training as something unattainable. It's only thanks to the encouragement of my family that I made that first tentative enquiry.

I hope my experience of endorsement shows that lived experience is now being recognised for the value I’ve always believed it has. Since I began my training and mentoring work I've known from feedback - and most importantly results -  that what I was doing had immense merit and quality, but going through a rigorous process of proving that to an organisation like Skills for Care means that it isn’t just me saying what I do is good, or my lovely clients or colleagues writing me testimonials (which I’m extremely grateful for) - it’s an independent and highly-regarded organisation saying it.

More than me proving a point, however, I hope it encourages others to realise that personal experiences have the power to educate to a level that is worthy of accreditation. Earlier this year I read with immense interest about the training offered by York Minds and Voices with a course entitled: ‘A good life with dementia.’ This is a course, delivered by people living with dementia for people living with dementia. A simple but groundbreaking concept.

This course embodies the peer support element that I believe is absolutely vital in good post-diagnostic support, and I was fascinated to follow its progress. I very much hope that inspired by what York Minds and Voices did earlier this year, training courses like this will become the norm – created and delivered by people living with dementia, financially supported by health and social care organisations and commissioners, and ultimately with the chance to become accredited to show the world their true merit. There can be no greater educators about dementia, or any other health condition, than those living with it.

I am committed to including the experiences and voices of people living with dementia in my training, whether it’s through quotes, showing films, or I hope one day with more personal involvement from people living with dementia. And of course my dad’s experiences are interwoven throughout everything I do - you might think that 6+ years after his death they would have become irrelevant, but in many respects so little has meaningfully changed in care and support, attitudes and beliefs, experiences and outcomes.

My thanks go to all of my clients and colleagues who have supported my application for endorsement, to Skills for Care for considering and ultimately endorsing my application, and to everyone who reads this blog, follows me on social media or has championed my work. Most of all though, I thank every person I’ve met living with dementia and their family members who have taught me something about their lived experience, and of course to my dad. Those last 19 years of his life featured some of the toughest challenges I have ever - and probably will ever – face, but I learnt more than I ever imagined possible, and the privilege of keeping my dad’s legacy alive by sharing those lessons is something I hold very dear.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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Monday 20 August 2018

Supporting LGBT people with dementia

Almost a year ago (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, my March 2018 blog was all about rural communities, and last month I told Kathy’s story, about living with a learning disability and dementia.

For this post, I want to think about the challenges for people with dementia who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT+). Of the six groups the DAA campaign focuses on, LGBT people with dementia are the most hidden of all in my opinion and arguably the most stigmatised, coping with societal attitudes towards their age, sexuality and dementia at the same time.

Many older lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people have led a life that's been all about hiding away, characterised by fear and intimidation. Historically as a nation we haven’t been welcoming to LGBT people with layer upon layer of discrimination and ostracisation, not to mention violence and criminalisation. Indeed, homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967 and was classified as a mental illness until 1973. 

Since then, the immense changes that have happened legally and societally will have brought a huge amount of relief and joy for many LGBT people, but it's important that my generation - who see PRIDE marches and same-sex couples marrying - don't forget the struggles that remain vivid in the minds of some LGBT people who are now ageing. Examples like this, of a care provider celebrating with their own PRIDE event are still few and far between. No aged-care client that I work with has done anything like this to my knowledge, and I know from quizzing learners at my training sessions about how we meet the needs of people from different communities, including LGBT, that I usually get blank looks.

One of the big motivators for writing this blog came from what a learner said to me a few weeks ago, echoing others in the past: “We don’t have anyone living in our care home who’s gay!” It’s an interesting assertion that many staff struggle to quantify since they have to admit that they don’t know the full life history of every person they provide care and support for, and that which they do know may be the ‘acceptable’ front that so many LGBT people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s have cultured from a young age to protect themselves from the worse of what society would have thrown at them over their lifetimes.

With the development of dementia, however, that carefully protected private life can become extremely vulnerable to intrusion in so many different ways. Contact with health and social care services may be something that a lesbian, gay, bi or trans person actively avoids due to fears from their earlier life of medical professionals who tried to ‘cure’ them through ‘conversion’ therapy, much of which would have come under the umbrella of old-style psychiatric services, and of course modern-day psychiatry is a key part of dementia care now.

If an LGBT person has a partner, that person may be assumed to be a relative or friend rather than a partner simply because they are the same sex, and difficulties around a homosexual partner having the same rights as a heterosexual partner remain commonplace. The disadvantage doesn’t end if the person is single either – a person with dementia who doesn’t have a partner, children or other loved ones to advocate for them is likely to have poorer experiences of health and social care services, and due to their sexuality, many older LGBT people may have become estranged from their family.

Life can feel very exposed for a person with dementia, and exposure may be the very last thing someone who’s never come out, or who struggled to come out many years ago, wants. A person may feel the need to come out repeatedly as they meet with the numerous different professionals that characterise most people’s experiences of health and social care services. Working out when it is ‘safe’ to disclose your sexual or gender identify can be difficult enough without the added complication of dementia affecting your cognition and decision-making abilities.

Issues around trust can be hugely challenging, not least since the person may be terrified of people who are effectively strangers providing care and support or any peers that they are living with in a care home environment making hurtful judgements should they learn the person’s sexuality or gender identity. Problems around personal care can be particularly acute, since the person may worry about being punished for their sexuality, or may be fearful of any scars from gender reassignment being noticed, commented on, discussed by colleagues or documented in a care plan.

We talk a lot in social care about supporting people to feel engaged and to express themselves, but if you’ve been born male and feel most comfortable identifying as a woman and dressing accordingly (or vice versa), trying to be yourself whilst living in a communal environment may feel impossible. For that person the risk of isolation and loneliness, and potentially more rapid progression of their dementia as a result, is a very real possibility.

So how do we overcome these challenges? I’m not naive enough to believe that care homes or other social care environments can universally become places that are welcoming and inclusive for LGBT people overnight. But while we cannot necessarily influence the viewpoints of the person’s peers, I believe that progress can be made in educating the workforce.

When I first designed my training modules a few years ago, I will admit I didn’t include education about any seldom heard groups. Now, I talk about LGBT, BAME, and LD communities routinely, as well as younger people living with dementia. Presenting the idea that staff may be supporting a person from the LGBT community and questioning assumptions is a first step towards improving inclusion. 

Importantly, it also ties in with everything I teach in relation to life story work. The idea that not everyone wants to share their life story, or that they may share what they believe are the ‘acceptable’ details, rather than those they fear are ‘unacceptable’, are some of the biggest challenges in how we understand the person’s past to improve their support today.

Acknowledging where difficulties like these lie, and pooling our knowledge to improve how we meet the needs of our ageing LGBT population, is so important if we are to make services more responsive to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people who are living with dementia and need, more than anything, to feel less stigmatised… not more.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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Monday 16 July 2018

Kathy’s story - Living with a learning disability and dementia

Imagine reaching your 40’s or 50’s having lived your whole life in the shadows of discrimination, exclusion, social stigma and poor treatment within many health and social care services... and then developing dementia. You’re younger than the majority of people who live with dementia and your dementia is likely (either through our perceptions or the circumstances of your health) to progress more rapidly. You are now part of one of the most seldom heard groups in society** - People living with a learning disability and dementia.

This is an issue close to my heart: My longest serving consultancy client of nearly 5 years are learning disability provider MacIntyre. I count many of the amazing people they support and their awesome staff as both colleagues and friends, but it wasn’t MacIntyre who originally introduced me to what life can be like when you’re a younger person with a learning disability and dementia.

On the day my dad moved into the care home that he would go on to spend over 8 years in, we met Kathy*. She was a bubbly, smiley, caring lady, clearly much younger than my dad and every other resident in the care home. She loved to ask questions and talk to anyone who would spend time with her.

Kathy wasn’t living with Down’s Syndrome, which is the learning disability most people associate with the development of Alzheimer’s Disease. Her only visitor was her sister, an older lady, devoted to her younger sibling and fiercely protective of her. Kathy’s sister was one of the most active and vocal contributors to resident’s meetings, making her a firm ally of ours. I’m sure she told me more about the disabilities and health issues that had dominated Kathy’s earlier life on one of our numerous chats over a cuppa, but I don’t recall the details.

Kathy’s room was in the corner at the end of the corridor, almost as if she was somehow set apart from the other residents - I never knew if that was deliberate or not. Kathy spent a lot of time in her room, making multiple clothing changes in a day and immersed with her toys and dolls. It was one of the most cosy rooms in the care home with every spare space filled, including having a bird feeder outside and plants on the windowsill that Kathy tended every day.

It’s been over 6 years since my dad died, but I still remember Kathy. She had a sparkle, but also a sadness. To be in a care home, surrounded by people significantly older than her, with staff who were mostly wonderful but without much time to spend with her (and the time they did spend with her was very much about tasks and functions) didn’t seem like the right environment for Kathy. She needed interaction, occupation (as did everyone!) and to socialise with her peers. 

Without her sister Kathy’s life would have been almost nondescript. Just another learning disability statistic, put into an aged care home that in the local area had a reputation for taking people other care homes wouldn’t take. Kathy’s sister was the person who had filled Kathy’s room with the things she loved, bought the clothes Kathy loved to keep changing into and the foodie treats that brightened up the long days.

Granted, the care home was better than Kathy living in one of the infamous long-stay hospitals, but that is a comparison that only looks favourable because long-stay hospitals really are the lowest dominator in terms of care and support provision for people with a learning disability. Back when my dad was alive I thought that was all Kathy could hope for, then in 2013 I began working with MacIntyre and was introduced to supported living, lifelong learning, person-centred approaches, Great Interactions, and the gold-standard of involving people in their care and support. The rest, as they say, is history.

I wish Kathy had known MacIntyre. I wish every person living with a learning disability, and especially people with LD who are developing dementia, could know MacIntyre. I’ll admit I’m bias; I’ve been heavily involved in their dementia work so of course I’m a huge supporter, but it really is groundbreaking as I wrote about here: ‘Watch And Learn: People With Learning Disabilities Leading The Way’ and here: ‘A Marriage Of Learning Disabilities And Dementia’.

But why does it matter you might wonder? Surely people like Kathy are few and far between? In fact, quite the opposite is true. People with a learning disability are living longer than ever before, but have a greater chance of developing dementia, with the link between Down’s Syndrome and Alzheimer’s Disease that I mentioned earlier being the biggest-known risk factor. Research and knowledge about LD and dementia remains patchy though, in common with so much about how as a society we view the importance of people with learning disabilities within our communities. 

Things are changing and heading in a more positive direction, but it shames us all that statistics like those calculated by the LeDeR (Learning Disabilities Mortality Review) programme tell us that a man with a learning disability dies 23 years younger than men in the general population, and that a woman with a learning disability dies 29 years younger than women in the general population. The median (when collecting data, this is the middle value, obtained from separating the higher half of the data sample from the lower half) age of death for a man with LD is 59 and for a woman is 56.

Those ages of course mean that if a person with a learning disability is going to develop dementia the majority will do so as a younger person, and in addition will likely face barriers in:
  • Identifying their dementia (including diagnostic overshadowing, where a person’s dementia symptoms are written off as learning disability ‘behaviours’)
  • Receiving a timely diagnosis (including difficulty accessing memory clinics and other specialist dementia services).
  • Being offered treatments (including non-pharmacological interventions, like music therapy and life story work, which a person with a learning disability may never experience).
  • Accessing age-appropriate, specialised care and support. 
I don’t know what happened to Kathy. My dad left the care home they shared on a cold March night by ambulance with an aspiration pneumonia that he never recovered from. He became a subject of safeguarding, and we went to clear his room shortly afterwards, the last time I saw Kathy. Her health, like my dad’s and everyone else’s, had deteriorated, she’d been hospitalised for bowel blockages and other stomach related issues, was immobile, and much of her spirit and communication abilities had become lost in the constant upheavals that characterised her life. The care home went on to be rated inadequate by CQC and has now closed.

Kathy had a life, but not the life she could or should have had, something far too many people with a learning disability experience. I’ve seen both sides of how we support people with a learning disability and dementia, and my appeal to anyone designing care and support services for our ageing learning disability population is to utalise best practice - it’s out there, shared by MacIntyre and others for all to learn from. It’s replicable, it’s achievable, and most of all it’s inspirational, because if we can get support for a person with a learning disability and dementia right, we can improve how everyone lives with dementia.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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*Name changed to protect identity.

**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 utilising 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 people who are living in rural communities in my March 2018 blog.

Monday 11 June 2018

The forgotten workforce

In all of the meetings I’ve attended about unpaid carers in the 6+ years since my own caring role for my dad ended, the most common themes have been: A) How do we identify carers? And B) How do we assess carer’s needs? The end result of the latter is generally to offer respite, somewhere along the line a leaflet (or a whole pack of leaflets) might be given, and possibly there'll be some signposting to a charity who are running a local carers group. Box ticked. Job done.

What a contrast to the paid care and support workforce, who in England need to complete the Care Certificate (which is comprised of 15 standards) and regularly update themselves in mandatory training topics such as health and safety, infection control and manual handling. In addition, all good care providers offering specialist support for people with dementia, learning disabilities and other complex conditions will provide in-depth and on-going training to support their staff. Only last month for Dementia Awareness Week, I blogged about the training and mentoring I provide to health and social care staff.

Two roles, one huge discrepancy

With this huge discrepancy in the levels of training and support provided, you might think that paid care and support workers and unpaid family carers (or you may prefer another term like ‘care partner’, ‘caregiver’ or ‘supporter’ I know from everything I’ve done to promote appropriate dementia language that words matter) have very different roles, but not so. Unpaid carers/care partners frequently undertake all of the elements of care and support that paid care and support workers do, but mostly in highly unsuitable domestic homes that are ill-equipped to support a person with high dependency needs, and with the additional and extremely complex element of the emotional ties that they have to the person who needs care and support.

An estimated 6.5 million people in the UK do this for a family member or friend who has a disability, illness, mental health problem or who needs additional help as they age. Imagine if we had 6.5 million paid care and support staff working for home care agencies, care homes and the like who had never been trained in any aspect of their role and were relying on guidance from a leaflet or their own internet research (for free online courses such as these). There would be uproar. As it is many professionals don’t receive education to the extent required for their role when theyve had training!

I know that my blog is read my numerous unpaid carers/care partners who have contacted me either looking for information or advice, or thanking me for what they have found within my 200+ posts. A few more may find my blog in the days ahead, as its UK Carers Week 2018, and whilst I’m very happy that I can provide help and support, it is a damming indictment that in 2018 there is no formal training programme for this 6.5 million strong forgotten workforce.

It seems that the discrepancies between paid and unpaid caring are considered ok because unpaid caring happens behind private front doors, and if you’ve no idea what you’re doing no one cares until a crisis occurs and you rock up at A&E.

Education – the key to remaining healthy and connected

The theme of this year’s Carers Week is how we enable carers/care partners to remain healthy and connected. For me, carer breakdown has always been a huge topic - I’ve lost count of the times I’ve said that a person with dementia is most likely to end up utilizing professional care services when immobility or incontinence leave their carer/care partner unable to cope. 

Thinking about immobility for a moment, I’m reminded of a story I was told about a lady who frequently visited a relative in a care home with her husband. Her husband had dementia, and was gradually losing his mobility. His wife was struggling to cope with supporting him to get in and out of the car – care staff spotted this one day and invited the lady to join their next manual handling training. Equipped with that knowledge, the wife was able to safely support her husband and protect her body from the common strains that can leave a carer/care partner unable to provide care and support.

Regarding incontinence, I often find myself reflecting on the film ‘Still Alice’, when Alice goes to her holiday home with her husband and is caught short trying to find the toilet. Alice and her husband are immensely distressed. From that moment, the seed that goes on to becoming urinary incontinence and potentially double incontinence is sown. Yet with some support to create an enabling environment, Alice can continue to find the toilet independently and remain continent for longer.

These are just two examples of very small, very simple interventions that can support families to do what most of us would want to do – help our loved one live a good life with dementia or any other condition that they are diagnosed with. But it’s utterly bonkers to think that any family can do that without any education or knowledge - lifelong learning, rooted in the personal experiences of former carers/care partners, for the duration of a carer/care partner’s life is essential. Even when a family member comes from a professional health or care background they often struggle, simply because care and support in a domestic home, when your shifts are 24/7, is about navigating numerous relentless difficulties without anyone to support you.

Knowledge is permanent respite from inexperience

The idea that a family carer/care partner just needs some ‘respite’ to get back on track is, I think, very insulting. Many families don’t want their loved one to go into a care home, or any other respite ‘solution’ temporarily. It’s not a ‘holiday’ for either person – just an upheaval fraught with worry, and a fear that one day the person will go into residential care and not be able to return home. I know that feeling all too well – when my dad went into hospital after we found him collapsed on the floor at home he never entered his front door again.

I’m sure that with the Carers Week theme of keeping carers/care partners healthy and connected there will be a lot of focus on areas like carer health checks, drop in clinics, social support groups and the like. But I know from my experiences with my dad that there is no substitute for knowledge. If there was, we wouldn’t set so much store by sending our children to school for the best part of 13 years of their young lives (and often far longer in higher education). And if the knowledge I’d gained as a carer/care partner was superfluous and insignificant, I wouldn’t have started this blog to share our experiences to help other families (and D4Dementia wouldn’t be so widely read).

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886
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