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

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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.