The current and predicted rise in the number of people living with dementia is frightening, but rapid progress is being made in understanding the disease and looking after and caring for those affected.
It’s been described as a ticking time bomb and a scourge of modern times. While 850,000 people are living with dementia in the UK today, the projected number for 2050 is two million.
The disease describes a set of symptoms that may include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language. The changes are often small to start with, but for someone with dementia, they have become severe enough to affect daily life, possibly presenting changes in mood or behaviour.
Alarmingly, Alzheimer’s Research UK statistics forecast that 24pc of men and 35pc of women who were born in 2015 will develop dementia during their lifetime.
While the search for cures for Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions that cause dementia has seen only painfully slow progress to date, there has been hearteningly rapid progress in understanding the condition and improving dementia care.
Helen Gosling, an operations manager at Suffolk-based Kingsley Healthcare, described the change in dementia and general geriatric care that had taken place since she started work as a care home supper girl 27 years ago as “quite dramatic”.
She said: “In the past, people with dementia were simply regarded as confused.
“We used to look after their physical needs, but did not really delve into their past to try to understand their behaviour.
“They were still well cared for, but it is only in recent times that people’s emotional wellbeing has been considered as much a priority as their physical health.”
Living with dementia
The challenge of finding the best possible way to support people living with dementia has triggered a cultural change at Kingsley over the past decade through the development of its innovative dementia care programme called WINGS.
Helen said the transformation became obvious as soon as you walked through the door of a dementia care home such as Allonsfield House, in Campsea Ashe, near Woodbridge.
Activities for people with dementia
You might see Trevor Bennett walking around with the maintenance man, holding a clipboard and inspecting building work, while other residents might be joining in with chores such as dusting or peeling vegetables.
“It is not an image that fits the vision of a ‘rest home’, but modern care homes are very different places to those out-dated institutions where residents did little other than sit in a line,” said Helen.
Many of the residents at Allonsfield House, a sprawling country farmhouse dating back to the 17th century, are living with dementia.
However, Helen said that, even though their memory of recent years might be fading, their behaviour and emotions were still intimately connected to their life history – and that was why emotional support and care needed to be tailored to the individual.
She said: “It is about staff being aware of people’s likes and dislikes and their family history.
“For a woman who had always been house proud, contentment might come from something as simple as helping with the cleaning or tidying the kitchen.
“One of our former residents at Allonsfield House, Jeff, had been a journalist and was obviously passionate about his job.
“He was frustrated at no longer being able to work so we set him up with a desk and papers and pens. It made him much happier, although he still got cross when he said he had not met his deadlines.”
Today’s focus on person-centred care meant residents’ families playing a key role in piecing together the jigsaw of an individual’s past.
“It has brought us closer to families. They come in now and treat it more like their home,” she said.
The sight of Allonsfield House manager Alex Powell’s pet terrier Squidgy running around between residents might be something many people would not associate with a care home.
However, Mrs Gosling said: “Pets are an important part of many people’s lives and there is no reason that should not carry on when they move into a care home.
“Animals can trigger many happy memories and pet therapy can have an enormous positive impact on people living with dementia.”
At the heart of the new WINGS philosophy was the truth that you do not need to stop what you love doing when you come into care.
“We have moved away from clinical care homes. This is their home from home with a family-friendly environment,” she said.