When we carried out a survey of the training social workers, doctors and dentists received to assess what they were taught about dementia, the answer was “not very much at all.”
Like the general public, the professional’s grasp of the issues around the minefield that is cognitive impairment is often very patchy. So it is good news to hear that England is to get its own national strategy on dementia and that the disease is to be made a national priority, as it is in Scotland.
When that strategy finally sees the light of day I think one of the key issues to stress for front-line staff is the crucial importance of early detection. There is a popular myth that if someone has dementia there is not much you can do about it, but that is far from the case. Aside from drug treatment, there are many other ways you can help mitigate the effect of the illness.
If I could be granted one wish it would be that all premises are proofed for dementia-friendly design. Some quite small changes can have a big impact and help make life a little less stressful and confusing for people with dementia. For example, doors in any public building, particularly care homes or health and social care premises, should be a contrasting colour to the wall if you want people to find them.
Another issue that needs to be looked at is the frequent assumption that everyone knows there has been a diagnosis of dementia. But in fact all too often older people – and their families – are not told. It is referred to as “memory problems” and it doesn’t click with people that what that means is dementia.
This is a shame on several counts. It is important that the family know, so they can get on the internet and start gathering information to equip them for what is ahead. But failure to divulge the diagnosis is particularly unfair on the older person themselves. If it was me I would certainly want to know if I was getting dementia – you might want to write to your children telling them all the stories you always meant to. You might want to change your will, make a living will, move house or go on a cruise.
Of course it’s a fact that we’re all going to die one day whether we have a diagnosis of dementia or not. But for those people who must tread that path there are two routes. Will it be along the high ground in the sunshine or will it be bumping along the bottom in the dark?
Professor June Andrews is director, The Dementia Services Development Centre at Stirling University
This article appeared in the 16 August issue under the headline “Shine a light on dementia”