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Monday, 9 April 2018

The rainbow of dementia

This week will mark what would have been my dad’s 91st birthday, and later on in April, the 6th anniversary of his passing. These milestones have left me reflecting on the last 19 years of dad’s life, how dementia crept into his life and year by year gradually overwhelmed him.

The picture painted of dementia in 2018 seems to have two distinct hues - the brightness of those who are living well, or as well as they can, and the darkness of those nearing the end of their lives, with the multiple physical health problems that I remember only too well. Yet as I think back over those 19 years, it was never as simple as two different hues for my dad.

If anything, it was much more like a rainbow, with the red roughly representing the beginning of my dad’s dementia (which was a gradual onset rather than a distinct change from one day to the next) and the violet representing the end of dad’s life. As the curves change colour, and reduce in size, so my dad’s dementia deteriorated, leaving him with fewer skills and more struggles.

Why a rainbow though you might wonder? It’s bright and cheerful and associated with the freshness and beauty that follows the darkness and rain. I certainly haven’t chosen it because I’m a 100 percent devotee of optimism where dementia is concerned. My positivity has always been tempered by stark memories of times that whilst difficult for me, were undoubtedly far worse for my dad.

I’ve chosen a rainbow because to me it represents balance: The brightness of the colours suggests something special and positive is possible at any point in a person’s dementia, but the reducing curves remind us that the struggles, or the paddling as my friend Kate Swaffer describes it, only becomes more pronounced.

If I think about my dad’s 19 years with dementia - certainly for the majority of the first 10 years - whilst the difficulties gradually increased, my dad had independence, looked after himself reasonably well for maybe five of those years, could read and write for the early years, follow TV programmes and sports, had a fairly good command of language, was able to participate in conversations, and certainly wasn’t slow in articulating his viewpoints. By 2018 standards, he would have made a good Dementia Diarist, a popular DEEP (Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Project) or DAI  (Dementia Alliance International) member, and an engaging public speaker (although my optimism on all of these fronts is tempered by knowing that my dad was a fairly private man by nature, so maybe wouldn’t have wanted to speak publicly).

Those are probably the red, orange and yellow years. By the time we get to the green and blue on the rainbow, dad’s in and out of hospital, and moving from a residential care home to a nursing home. For my dad, the key turning point is his larger stroke, and from that day confusion, communication difficulties, urinary incontinence, changed behaviour and a whole raft of inappropriate interventions (most notably antipsychotic medication) follow. My dad is becoming a much more stereotypical example of what society thinks about when it thinks about a person with dementia.

The indigo and violet years are characterised by further physical decline, with immobility, double incontinence and four years of dysphagia for my dad to cope with before the end of his life. This is the picture most people conjure up when they or a loved one are diagnosed. But as much as the ‘red’ years don’t go on forever, so most people with dementia don’t jump from ‘red’ to ‘violet’ either.

I am a great believer in seeing every face of dementia for what it is: The person living as well as they can in the red to green curves of the rainbow is giving hope to every single individual who has just been diagnosed or will be in the future. Without that hope, everyone just fast forwards to a picture of what 'violet' looks like, and that is only going to lead to more rapid deterioration with the added pain of potentially severe depression, hopelessness and even suicidal thoughts.

The person living in the blue to violet curves is never going to offer the same type of hope. They are coping with a greater array of physical health problems and are increasingly reliant on others for their care and support. Our perception is that brightness is fading, but what we learn from these individuals about the human spirit is perhaps even greater than their more articulate peers. Moreover, the qualities we find in ourselves from becoming caregivers represents invaluable, albeit sometimes very painful, life lessons.

Aside from my dad and the people I’ve known personally who are affected by dementia, I’ve met so many other individuals through my professional work who are living with dementia, coping (or not coping, and yes, sometimes suffering) and every single person has taught me something. As my dad took his last breaths I learnt about peaceful serenity. As I see a person living with dementia giving a conference speech, I learn about their strength to stand there and tell their story (often without notes, something I cannot do). As I see a person living with dementia in a care home trying to regain mobility after a broken hip, I learn about determination. As I read a book, a blog, or a social media post from a person with dementia who is laying bare their personal experiences, I learn more about living with dementia than I ever could from a textbook. As I see someone managing a few mouthfuls of food, and breaking out into a satisfied smile that they’ve outwitted dysphagia for one mealtime, I see a will to go on living despite the obvious struggles.

When my dad's life started to change, which in hindsight was when he began developing dementia, I had no idea we had 19 years ahead of us. As every year went by, we just tried to make the most of whatever situation we found ourselves in and give dad the best quality of life possible. I certainly don’t think we always managed that, and I dearly wish I’d known then what I know now.

Did my dad live well? Yes sometimes. Did he suffer? Yes sometimes. But when I reflect now, the fact that it’s a rainbow I gravitate towards, feeling an affinity with the brightness rather than the reducing curves, reminds me that although dad is gone we lived those 19 years together, and for all their ups and downs there was a beauty in the love that bound us together and that shines on.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Monday, 19 March 2018

Living with dementia in a rural community

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, and for this post, I want to think about the challenges for people with dementia who are living in rural communities.

It’s a topic close to my heart - I’ve always lived in rural areas, and currently live over 11 miles from my nearest town. My dad was a farmer with a passion for the countryside, and he fostered my love of rural life, nature and the environment from an early age.

But whilst I love rural living, I’m also well aware that it isn’t without its challenges. Although rural communities can often be amazing at pulling together and looking after their own, there is no doubt that many people can also be very isolated and lonely if they become ‘cut off’ or reclusive.

For a person developing dementia, particularly if they live alone, that can lead to numerous problems. My dad went ten years without a diagnosis, and whilst I would be the first to admit that there were many factors that contributed to that timescale, I do wonder if living miles from healthcare services made him someone who was ‘out of sight and out of mind’.

Dad’s local town was 9 miles away, and although he was on a bus route the services weren’t as frequent as in urban areas. During his 10 years without a diagnosis dad stopped driving which made him even more dependent, not only on public transport but on his family too. I didn’t learn to drive until after dad’s diagnosis, by which time he was living in a care home, so it wasn’t like I was much use on the transport front either.

Had dad received a timely diagnosis, and had services existed back then that he or I had wanted to access (groups and therapies for dad, or for me, carers services), our involvement would have been dependent upon us having suitable transport that got us to these services at the right time. For many people living in rural communities, these are sometimes problems that prove insurmountable.

Reflecting now, I also see how lucky we were that dad didn’t get into serious difficulties living surrounded by fields (the garden backed onto open farmland), ditches and streams whilst he was developing dementia. The countryside was very picturesque, but had dad decided to go out walking and then become unable to find his way home, it’s quite possible no one would have seen him, let alone found him, potentially until it was too late.

Urban areas tend to have more landmarks, in terms of buildings and points of interest. There are also many more CCTV cameras and members of the public who might see someone with dementia who has got lost whilst walking. Finding a person with dementia who is confused and disorientated in that environment is possibly easier than in the countryside.

My dad was living on the edge of a small village, so we weren’t completely cut off from civilisation, but many people living in rural areas may be far more isolated down a dirt track without another house in sight. If bad weather then hits the potential for difficulties or disasters becomes considerably greater.

Of course it isn’t just about hazards and problems. Many people living in rural areas benefit from cleaner air, more open spaces and opportunities to absorb themselves in outdoor pursuits that improve their wellbeing. Even being able to sit by a window and look out onto open fields and watch the animals and birds, enjoying how the changing seasons alter the natural landscape, is something many people in urban areas may crave.

Isolation and loneliness isn’t just reserved for individuals living in the countryside either. It’s often said that you can be surrounded by people in a town or city and yet still be the loneliest person in the world. Just because you have countless neighbours all around you, doesn’t mean anyone will actually knock on your door.

But I do firmly believe that people living with dementia in rural locations face some specific challenges, particularly around accessing services and support and remaining safe and well (although not resorting to being risk adverse), that require all of us to consider how we are reaching out to these individuals and communities and making our services and support accessible. Yes, some dementia friendly community work has happened in rural areas, but certainly not in all of them, or even the majority.

Where I live is currently undertaking a neighbourhood development plan survey, and one of the areas I’ve highlighted in the lack of retirement and extra care housing, and residential care services, for our ageing population. People who live in rural areas have every right to reside in the location of their choosing - they shouldn’t be forced to move to an urban area if they don’t want to just because their needs are changing and there is a lack of services and support in their locality.

Of course there are always challenges to find staff, and run health, social care and third sector services in rural areas that are sufficiently used that they remain viable, but as a country we need to become much more innovative about supporting people in every community, regardless of how rural they are, to lead the life they want, including when they are living with dementia.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Monday, 5 February 2018

Without a song or dance, what are we?

One of the first blogs I ever wrote on D4Dementia, back in May 2012, was about music for people with dementia. It charted my dad’s love of music, how it became a vital communication tool in the latter years of dad’s dementia, and how I’d been so inspired by the effect music had on my dad that I trained to become a professional singer and completed 35 gigs in care homes.

I guess back when I was doing those gigs, I was effectively part of what a recently launched report on dementia and music calls “a multitude of different individuals and organisations” delivering live music in care homes. The patchwork picture painted by that phrase is very apt given the findings of the aforementioned report - from the Commission on Dementia and Music set up by the International Longevity Centre and supported by The Utley Foundation - that music for people with dementia is, “Defined by sporadic provision which is currently delivered only to the few.”

But why does that matter? Evidence has emerged over the last few years that shows a multitude of benefits associated with music for people with dementia, including:

  • A positive effect on the brain by potentially helping with the recall of information
  • Minimising distressing symptoms
  • Tacking anxiety and depression
  • Retaining speech and language
  • Enhancing quality of life (through social interaction, improved wellbeing and decreased stress hormones)
  • Having a positive impact on the person’s relatives, friends and care workers when they join the person in music-based activity
  • Minimising anxiety and discomfort in end-of-life care

I recognise so many of these benefits from my personal experiences. Music gave my dad so much joy, satisfaction and pride. He would sing his favourite songs from beginning to end, word perfect and with precise rhythm and timing. Most tellingly of all, as I recounted in my 2014 Huffington Post blog 'The Power of Music Therapy', when dad could no longer hold a conversation, he could still sing a song.

For us as a family, singing dad’s favourite songs with him or humming or tapping out a treasured melody gave us a priceless connection with him. It was something we could all join in with (once I’d printed lyric sheets for those of us less well-versed with the songs!), smiling, laughing and sometimes shedding a tear together so bound up were we with the emotions of the music.

Indeed, it was the amazing effect music had on my dad during his years with dementia that contributed to the inspiration I had to begin D4Dementia. I wanted to share some of the positive aspects of my dad’s life, and music is right up there on the positive list. In the nearly 6 years since my dad died, I’ve urged everyone I’ve met who’s involved in dementia care and support to give music a try, and it has undoubtedly become easier to do that.

Initiatives like Playlist for Life have come to the fore, and with internet access improving yearly, being able to utilise digital music archives, watch music performances on YouTube, or obtain lyrics to support communal singing of favourite songs has made music more accessible than ever before.

It is extremely sad then that the Commission on Dementia and Music concluded that:

"Educated estimates suggest that high quality arts and music provision may currently only be available in just 5% of care homes." And, "There may be as many as 320,000 people with dementia in residential settings who do not have access to meaningful arts provision."

There is SO much more that needs to be done to support people who are newly diagnosed with dementia, all the way through to people being supported in end-of-life care, to access the musical intervention that is right for them. It could be anything from informally listening to CD’s or the radio, to playing an instrument, formalised music therapy sessions, live music performances designed for people with dementia, or groups like Alzheimer's Society's 'Singing for the Brain'

The report gives a list of recommendations which provide all of us with a focus for raising awareness of the benefits of music for people with dementia, or becoming actively involved in its provision. Indeed, friend and fellow writer, Pippa Kelly, has already blogged about a fantastic idea from soprano Lesley Garrett for the BBC to reintroduce ‘Singing Together’, a programme that once brought young people together around their radios and could now do the same for older people.

I for one wholeheartedly support this idea and hope it is just the start of many more innovative musical initiatives, simply because, as the report says:

“A life without music is unimaginable for many and yet for some people with dementia, opportunities to access music can be few and far between.”

Let’s all be part of changing this current reality so that no one who could benefit from a song or dance in their life is left without it.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886

Monday, 15 January 2018

Delivering a dementia diagnosis

There are many times in a person’s life with dementia that are described as pivotal. Often these are the difficult, crisis occasions that create the negative narrative that is so commonly associated with dementia. But after my recent personal experiences of dementia in my wider family, I’ve found myself reflecting on what I feel is arguably one of the most, if not THE most pivotal moment in a person’s life with dementia - their diagnosis.

As I’ve written about many times, my dad’s diagnosis took ten years, involved a catalogue of missed opportunities, a crisis that could have killed him, and ultimately when we finally heard the words that he’d been formally diagnosed with dementia, they came when we visited him in hospital and found his bed empty. The nurse said he’d been moved to the Elderly Mentally Infirm (EMI) Unit having been diagnosed with dementia.

Fast forward 14.5 years and for most people in the UK things have improved. We now have memory clinics, and the voluntary Memory Services National Accreditation Programme (MSNAP) from the Royal College of Psychiatrists that involves regular peer reviews (I am an MSNAP Peer Reviewer). Multidisciplinary teams staff these clinics, bringing a wealth of different skills and experiences that are vital in giving patients the very best diagnostic experience.

But not everyone has the type of experience I’ve seen in some of the best memory clinics in England, and when the experience isn’t good the effects last long after the doctor has delivered their clinical judgement. Listening to the diagnostic experience one of my in-laws had in South Africa last year left me with a mixture of sadness and anger - no person should have such a poor experience given all of the best practice examples available from many different countries (including the UK), and bear in mind that we are talking about private healthcare here, where the person is the very definition of a consumer.

My feelings left me reflecting on what a good experience really looks like from the person’s perspective, and I want to share those thoughts with you for this, my first D4Dementia blog of 2018. Whether you are a person concerned you may be developing dementia and could be seeking an explanation for your symptoms in the coming months, a relative worried about a loved one who you may go on to accompany to diagnostic appointments, or a clinician responsible for any part of the diagnostic pathway, I hope this list will help you.

1)     The person must own their diagnosis

This is the singularly most important aspect of diagnosis. Dementia remains stigmatised, particularly amongst older generations who still remember the asylums and labels of ‘madness’ that may have formed their viewpoint of dementia many years ago. The person needs to be personally involved and addressed at every point in the diagnostic process, and when the final verdict is delivered, it has to be communicated to the person first and foremost, in the most appropriate way for that person and by the most appropriate clinician. Anything less than this and the risk of the person not believing or trusting in the diagnostic process and the outcome of it will massively increase, which in turn can have long-term ramifications.

2)     Family can help... and hinder

It’s often said that a dementia diagnosis isn’t just given to the person, but to their whole family and wider network. Whilst as a daughter whose father lived with dementia I would agree with that, there is always a temptation to involve family members in the diagnostic process more than the person themselves, sidelining the very individual who is potentially living with dementia. Clinicians often choose to speak to family members because it’s perceived as easier and the information being gathered is seen as more reliable. At best that’s insulting. At worst it pits family members against their loved one with dementia. Marginalising the person is likely to leave that individual feeling that everyone is ganging up against them, which is a recipe for destroying relationships at the very time when they need to be at their strongest.

3)     The diagnostic process must be fair and thorough

For a person to believe and trust in their diagnosis, the process must be comprehensive, transparent, never rushed and totally individualised. Attempting even preliminary investigations when the person is unwell with another condition or infection is, in my view, utterly unacceptable. The person must be at their best to know in their own mind that they are able to give of their best in tests. Equally from a clinical perspective, you want an accurate measurement of the person’s baseline or, if you are tracking from a baseline, an accurate picture of where the person is now. Diagnosing just to tick a box, earn a financial reward (as has been available in the past in England) or prescribe certain drugs is never, ever justifiable.

4) A few words that change a person’s life

I’ve been very lucky in my work with MSNAP to hear from many people living with dementia and their family members who’ve had nothing but praise for the doctors, nurses, therapists and advisors who they’ve encountered during their diagnostic experience. How the diagnosis is delivered is a key marker we look for during MSNAP peer reviews and with good reason. An empathetic clinician who delivers the news of a dementia diagnosis with kindness and clarity, tailoring the level of information to the person, understanding what a momentous moment it is for the person, and allowing time and space for their carefully-chosen words to sink in is a clinician others less adept in these situations could learn a huge amount from.

5) Don’t abandon the person and their family

I couldn’t write a blog about diagnosis and not touch on one of the aspects of dementia care and support that I am most passionate about - post-diagnostic support. Even when a diagnostic process has fulfilled all of the aspects I’ve outlined above, the weeks and months after the person’s diagnosis can leave the individual and their family feeling abandoned and having to cope alone. This is when the risk of depression for all concerned can exponentially increase, and life can begin to unravel pretty rapidly and most definitely not in the direction of ‘living well’. Accessing peer support (including through DEEP and DAI), carer support, making environmental modifications, exploring rehabilitation, reablement and therapies to combat distressing symptoms are just a few ways to ensure that a good diagnostic experience is followed by an equally positive post-diagnostic experience.

Until next time...
Beth x

You can follow me on Twitter: @bethyb1886