The genetic link between Down’s syndrome and the onset of
dementia is becoming increasingly relevant for service development,
as people with learning difficulties lead longer, more independent
lives. Natalie Valios examines how
services are evolving.
The incidence of people with Down’s syndrome developing dementia
has caught professionals unaware. At least 36 per cent aged 50 to
59 and 54.5 per cent aged 60 to 69 are affected by dementia,
compared to 5 per cent of the general population aged over 65
This high incidence rate is explained by the fact that most
people with Down’s syndrome have three copies of chromosome 21,
which is implicated in the development of Alzheimer’s. And, because
people with Down’s syndrome are living much longer – an increase in
life span during the past 60 years from an average of nine years to
more than 50 today – far more are living long enough to develop
Unfortunately, according to the Foundation for People with
Learning Disabilities, services have failed to respond to people’s
changing needs. Many professionals and carers remain unaware of the
increase in dementia and services have yet to catch up with
Although the closure of long-stay hospitals for people with
learning difficulties was essential, it has had an impact on
services available to those with dementia. These institutions were
very experienced at working with people with learning difficulties
through their whole life. While older people were transferred to
residential homes when they closed, younger people with learning
difficulties went into community services where too often no real
plans were made for their long-term needs.
David Thompson is project manager of the growing older with
learning disabilities programme at the Foundation for People with
Learning Disabilities. He says: “We are concerned that services
have not kept up with these developments. Too often, people with
dementia are turned away from the residential homes and day centres
they are familiar with because those services cannot cope with
their increasingly complex needs.”
In an ideal situation, clients who develop dementia would have
enough support to remain where they are, whether it be in their
family home or in a residential home. Most commonly, though, that
support just isn’t available. The result is that, at a time when
they need specialist services the most, they are moved to what is
often less appropriate accommodation, such as residential care for
older people when they are still in their 40s or 50s, or generic
dementia services which are inappropriate for people with learning
There are various valid reasons why someone developing dementia
cannot stay where they are – for example terminal care isn’t
provided, or there are no ground floor bedrooms and bathrooms. “You
need the right physical environment, staff who are willing to go
the extra mile, and support from the organisation and the funding
authority,” highlights Thompson. “But it doesn’t happen that
The lack of awareness around the link between Down’s syndrome
and dementia also often means staff do not know the early onset
signs to look out for, he adds. This coupled with high staff
turnover, or overuse of agency staff who will not know the client
well enough to notice any changes, results in symptoms being
missed. This oversight has finally been recognised, however, and
one of the modules for the new learning difficulty award framework
level one and two is on dementia.
Sometimes, it’s not training that is the problem, but the amount
of staffing and funding.
Surrey Oaklands NHS Trust provides services for people with
learning difficulties and mental health problems. It has about 100
homes for people with learning difficulties, as well as community
services, day services and challenging needs services.
Karen Dodd, head of psychology at the trust, explains: “We have
no problem in our local area in giving our staff skills. But the
rate of change is so quick that we are forever playing
Dodd helped put together a briefing sent to all health and
social services commissioners in the country.2 It sets out planning
considerations for the future, which include increasing the range
of residential provision available to include more appropriate day
services; more specialist services; care packages in existing
family homes or social care housing; transport that takes into
account clients’ mobility problems; and more money on aids and
These financial factors will be critical if services are to
– More spending, planned and built into budgets over the next 10
years to manage the change required to buildings, staffing levels
and specialist services.
– Financial flexibility to allow individual care packages,
possibly involving pooled budgets.
– Where the carer of the person with dementia is elderly and
also in poor health, then services need to be tailored to their
– Fast financial decision-making.
Just a handful of specialist services work in this area and Dodd
believes there is a need for more to support those people who are
in inappropriate settings. “We need to think about where we move
them and what we develop,” she says.
1 Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities,
New Guidelines on an Overlooked Need, FPLD, 2001
2 K Dodd et al, Down’s Syndrome and Dementia:
Briefing for Commissioners, Foundation for People with Learning
new home designed to reduce confusion
Although the first private specialist service for people with
Down’s syndrome and dementia has yet to open, it could already fill
all its eight beds. Kingston House in Kingston, near Canterbury, is
being set up by CareTech Community Services to provide palliative
and terminal care, and will open this month.
The house was converted to minimise the disorienting effects of
dementia. Special lighting has been installed to eliminate shadows,
as they can create confusion, as do colour breaks in carpets either
side of a door.
There will be no full-length mirrors in the house. “Because
their long-term memory is maintained and their short-term memory is
scrambled, they will have an image of themselves from maybe 20
years ago,” explains CareTech director Stewart Wallace. “So they
would see a stranger looking back at them, which is
As most residents will be in their fifties, the surroundings
will reflect their long-term memories to ensure that they will feel
comfortable, so the decor will be reminiscent of 30 years ago.
Paintings and pictures will have no reflective glass. And all
toilet doors will be painted the same colour to help residents
memorise where they are.
Bedrooms will have curtains and blinds to eliminate the
confusing light of sunrise and sunset, while circular paths track
from the house around the garden and back again, with no steps, to
enable people to wander safely outside.
Margaret Tray spent almost 40 years caring for her sister
Kathleen, who had Down’s syndrome, until she died at the age of 69
in February 1997.
Margaret was four when Kathleen was born in 1927. A few weeks
later during a hospital visit, a doctor told their mother to leave
Kathleen at the hospital and “try to forget she had been born”.
Kathleen’s parents ignored the advice and she remained in the
family home, learning to speak, read, sew and knit. Although
Margaret later married and left home, she remained involved in
caring for her sister. Eventually both her mother and sister came
to live with her and her husband.
After nursing her mother through cancer until she died aged 87,
Margaret continued to care for Kathleen until she suddenly
developed severe dementia. She became doubly incontinent and lost
her speech and mobility. Although Kathleen needed 24-hour care, the
only support Margaret had was a home care service for 20 minutes
twice a day. Margaret was 64 and exhausted. After six weeks of
looking after Kathleen with her increased needs, her doctor warned
her that unless she moved Kathleen, they would both end up in
“It was terrible having to make that decision, because I
promised my mother I would always look after her,” says
It wasn’t until weeks after Kathleen’s death that Margaret
learned that there were learning difficulty nurses in the district.
Since then, her self-imposed task has been to create greater
awareness, and she has written a book about her
experiences.1 “When I look back and think what there is
now, of course things have improved. But there’s still room for a
great deal more improvement.”
1 Margaret T Fray, Caring for Kathleen: A Sister’s
Story about Down’s Syndrome and Dementia, British Institute of
Learning Disabilities, 2000