Over 40% of the UK population have a close friend or family member with dementia. The condition is mainly associated with older age so, with people living longer, it’s on the increase.

There are currently more than 8,600 people living with dementia in Worcestershire and forecasts suggest the number will rise to 10,443 by 2020.

Worcestershire County Council is supporting a range of schemes to help people understand what dementia is – and how they can help those who have it.

The health expert

Dementia is not a disease, but a collection of symptoms that result from damage to the brain.

There are different types of dementia – the most common caused by Alzheimer’s disease. Frances Howie, Interim Director of Public Health at Worcestershire County Council, described some of the symptoms: “Dementia affects everyone in different ways but sufferers often struggle to remember recent events, follow conversations or find the right word for something. At the beginning it can seem to come and go a bit like a Christmas tree light flickering.”

Frances believes it’s important to talk about dementia – and not make it a taboo subject: “We need to normalize the condition so that we can talk openly about the difficulties. That’s why our Dementia Friends training is so important. We need more people to sign up for this training to understand the condition.”

Dementia Friends is an initiative started by the Alzheimer’s Society. Basically it’s about encouraging people to learn more about dementia and small ways to help. For more information see: https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk

“The dementia journey is one you don’t have to travel alone. There are people to help”, said Frances. “You can get online advice from these websites or ring the National Dementia Helpline on 0300 222 1122.”

Frances offered some advice for us all: “There are ways you can reduce the risk of dementia and it is never too late to start. Take the NHS health check at www.nhs.uk/nhshealthcheck to make life changes to reduce those risks.”

The Dementia Champion

Dementia Champions are trained volunteers who encourage others to become Dementia Friends by learning a little bit about the condition. Champions run information sessions in their community and inspire others to help those living with dementia to live well.

Debbie, 40, from Worcester was a support worker for adults with learning disabilities before joining The Hive as a library customer advisor. She said becoming a Dementia Friend Champion was “undoubtedly one of the most positive things I’ve done”.

The mother of two became interested in mental health after suffering antenatal depression during pregnancy. When her father-in-law was diagnosed with vascular dementia she started reading about it.

“My father-in-law was a very social man. He enjoyed watching football or joining friends for a pint but all of that went – he just was not himself some days,” she said. “He sadly passed away when he was 70 but it was a trigger to help others who face this challenge.”

Debbie set up a reader group at The Hive for people with dementia and offers information and support to families and carers. “Reading is a way to reach people with dementia,” she said. “For example, poetry or books with pictures can really help stimulate people with this condition.” Information on the sessions is available at: http://www.thehiveworcester.org/regular-events.html

She said you don’t need any particular experience or skillset to join the 10,500 Dementia Friends Champions – and it’s easy to get involved. Volunteers attend a training session and receive support when they need it. For details visit: https://www.dementiafriends.org.uk

The library customer advisor recommended the ‘Reading Well Books on Prescription’ collection which includes books on dementia offering advice and support for relatives and carers. These are available for library members to borrow for three weeks – and can be reserved free of charge.

“I know it is really hard when your loved one becomes forgetful or agitated,” said Debbie. “My advice – having gone through this – is to take a moment to mentally step back and see the person for who they are. Try to take off the dementia veil that surrounds them, and just see and remember them.”

Side by Side

Side by Side worker Julie Quinn visits around five people a day to help people with dementia keep safe and independent for as long as is possible. One of her clients is a retired Worcester engineer who used to travel the globe.

The 76 year-old father of three has dementia. He started experiencing disorientation and was getting more forgetful – but wanted to retain his independence and remain in his own home. He receives intensive support, twice a day, provided by trained care staff from Worcestershire County Council’s Side by Side service.

Julie has been visiting this Worcester gentleman for six years and describes him as a real character. “I help him with his medication, or take him to the surgery, or clean out Bertie the budgie’s cage if that’s what’s needed,” said Julie. “It’s about help for the individual.”

When asked what he thought of the service Mr. A said: “It’s very useful. Without it you could get lonely and introverted – but seeing Julie twice a day is good. They are very nice people.”

Mr. A’s daughter added: “I am really pleased with the Side by Side service ,they have supported Dad brilliantly and have helped him maintain his independence in a very professional and kind way – which has always been his wish.”

Julie was clear about what’s needed to do the job well. “Everyone who works with customers should have dementia training to understand why someone might be confused. The training offered by the Council is red hot and I’d recommend it.”

She added: “I get a lot of job satisfaction. I go home at the end of each day knowing I’ve helped someone and made a difference. I get to come in and help such lovely people it’s very rewarding.”