There are around 3,000 people with a diagnosis of dementia living in the Harrogate district. With two thirds of those people trying to lead a normal life in the community, the Harrogate Advertiser Series campaign to make Harrogate one of the most dementia-friendly communities will have a lasting impact on many people. JAMES METCALF reports.
Dementia is a condition caused by diseases of the brain and is a physical illness, not just a part of growing old, and one in three people over 65 will get it.
This fact, often misunderstood, is a central part of the education being offered to businesses, companies, and community groups by charity Dementia Forward when they launch their bid to transform Harrogate into a dementia-friendly community next month.
There are other startling facts in the training: people under 65 can also develop it, and over the age of 80 the chances of doing so are dramatically increased. Two thirds of people with dementia are women, and by 2021 - only seven years away - one million people are expected to have dementia in the UK.
CEO of Dementia Forward Jill Quinn said putting this information out there for people to properly digest will help them to understand what dementia is, and perhaps how they can help those affected.
“People hear the word dementia and are scared, but they wouldn’t be if they knew more about it,” she said.
“When we go into a hospital we’re not going in to train nurses, we are going in to train the people who get overlooked. The porters, the volunteers, the chaplain, and the carpark attendant.
“For people to gain access properly in any place we need that education out there. It is a culture shift, and like a social movement it doesn’t happen over night, but there is an urgency to this.”
When people take on the training, which seven businesses in Harrogate have already completed, in a pilot scheme, they look at what it might feel like to have dementia and how best to communicate, that carers may also need support, and the training focuses on busting the myths associated with dementia. For instance, a person may be physically fit despite the disease but can no longer take part in the hobbies that formed an essential part of their life up to that point. This, then, means the disease also affects a person’s identity, and that can be hard to bear.
Mrs Quinn said: “You could be a great golfer and that can remain, but you can’t do that anymore because you can no longer drive, or you might not find you way, or might do the holes in the wrong order, but that doesn’t affect your shot.
“So if you have the right person supporting you can still golf if that’s what makes you tick. We mustn’t write people off.”
The much hoped for outcome of this education roll-out, which will follow a launch event on September 22 at Holiday Inn Harrogate when other businesses are invited to attend, is to introduce changes in society that will enable people to continue their normal lives with the help of a community that not only sympathises but knows how to help.
Mrs Quinn added: “I don’t think people spend much time thinking about what it is, because it is actually a loss of identity, and as human beings that is so important and you lose it because you can no longer do the things that make you tick. It isn’t until you get your head round that that you can truly be empathetic.
“The message for somebody like a policeman, for instance, is that if they understand it as the illness that it is, which is invisible, and if they understand what is going on, their empathy is increased and the way they deal with that person will be different.
“So it was about changing their approach in the way they would talk to people because questioning can make them retreat into themselves. If people are not supported directly they shrink, but if they get the right support they will retain their life and identity for longer.”
Once they have completed the education, businesses will be given a sticker they can put in their window and use on their paperwork, and as the campaign spreads it is hoped that people with dementia will recognise that symbol as a safe place where help is at hand, but also that others will want to find out more.
They can then join Dementia Action Alliance - a national movement that lists all dementia-friendly companies by locality.
Mrs Quinn said: “We have a Harrogate page sat there waiting now for its members to join and they will become part of a network for as long as it takes to embed it in enough so it doesn’t get forgotten.” Once a network is established the important work of making changes will have already begun. Though still in its early days, the lasting impact of this will quite literally change lives.
Mrs Quinn added: “When we made entrances wider for wheelchair users and put ramps in place it must have seemed hard, but now we look back and it seems obvious that we should have done that. That is what we need to do with dementia.
“When we talk to people about their illness I swear they stay better for longer, I swear they do.
“It has been quite a journey, because it has been two years that we have been banging on about it, but now it is working.”
There are already businesses doing a great deal in the district to support people living with dementia.
This includes Over the Rainbow Care - a business currently working to set up dementia day centres in Knaresborough, Ripon, Wetherby, and Harrogate from the end of next month.
Run by Megan Sweeting and her business partner Natalie Dobson, these centres will include a range of pre-planned activities designed not only to provide a purpose-built environment for people with the condition but also to give a break to their carers.
Miss Sweeting said: “What is most important to me is trying to allow people to be as independent as possible for as long as possible, and I work in the community with people still living at home to ensure they have a good quality of life.
“What we are trying to do is create a good environment of respite for carers as well, so they know their relatives or friends are somewhere safe and participating in meaningful activities, but so they can also have a break.
“There will be a range of activities on offer, including lots of sing-a-longs and reminiscence activities, arts and quizzes, because that is mentally stimulating and can really help.
“We will be allowing up to 14 people into the service at one time, so it is quite intimate and we can tailor the activities.” Though the company will charge for the activities, the money will go back into the business, which hopes to get a minibus to do day trips.
In the event of an emergency, contact Dementia Forward on their helpline 01765 601224.
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