Last night I went to an open meeting in a medium sized town in Derbyshire where members of the community were considering working towards recognition as a dementia friendly community. This scheme is operated by the Alzheimer’s Society and aims to promote awareness and recognition of dementia by individuals, groups, businesses and organisations. Basically the starting blocks are to undertake some form of dementia awareness training, such as becoming a dementia friend, and to make some pledge to actively change one thing for the better. The local independent pharmacist has trained all their staff as dementia friends and strives to explain things a little more clearly to customers as necessary. Likewise the small newsagent always finds time for a pleasant word with all their older customers and will help with finding that all elusive piece of cheese at the back of the cabinet. In many ways, the town is well on the way to achieving their status as a dementia friendly town. But the beauty and challenge, is that this race never ends as the process is reviewed yearly. Optional stickers for display are provided which have been shown to improve business since we all like to shop in places where we hope customer service will be compassionate. Each year, each organisation, sets a new target to achieve with the ambition to gradually improve year on year.
The number of people attending was fantastic with carers, businesses and some voluntary organisations present. Our local Alzheimer’s Society dementia friendly community worker, Helen, came along despite having a heavy cold. She had been invited by one of our local heroes who wanted to implement sustainable local change. We had a cuppa and a brief introduction and then set to work on some ideas for change in the town. We discussed possible areas of priority and also praised some of the good work already taking place. The local supermarket pledged to urge all their workforce to become dementia friends, the carer wanted to see better signposting for services and another group was suggested. Then we discussed next steps which included trying to determine potential members for a steering group. Our local hero hadn’t expected such a huge demonstration of support and tried to hold back the emotion as a large show of hands went up.
The steering group is necessary to enable the support of the Alzheimer’s Society Dementia Friendly support workers. These individuals offer ongoing support at every stage, from inception to development and establishment of the group. All too often such initiatives rely upon the good will and energy of single community heroes, who can be prone to serious burnout and emotional wreckage. A cohesive steering group with multiple members able and willing to delegate and deliver realistic goals is essential. The remit of the group will be defined by a process of local consultation which is essential otherwise the whole venture is meaningless.
The whole remit of dementia friendly communities is often ambiguous. What is it all about? I remain skeptical that entire countries can claim to be dementia friendly however laudable that may be. I do think there isn’t any one model of a dementia friendly community and that even between small regions, villages can be very different in their vision and what they know will work best for their community. Some will resist being formally identified as a dementia friendly community, preferring to take the “age friendly approach” or a “community for all” approach, yet in essence be very inclusive. Others will seek to endorse the full recognition process and seek to include all public service providers, businesses, organisations, churches and so on as much as possible by use of the logos and schemes.
Regardless of logos, badges or publicity the most important aspect to this is that all members of the community, who may be experiencing isolation because of the impact of dementia, will be able to (re)connect within the place they live and with friendly faces. There is a genuine risk that older people are isolated during the very stage of their lives when connections with others are so vital for a sense of well being; we need to seriously challenge the status quo which puts older people in places apart from other members of our communities. Let’s include children, young people, families, the middle aged and the newly/semi- retired and the more retired in the development of these dementia friendly communities. Then when we no longer need to think “is this inclusive or dementia friendly?” we have reached the finishing line. This is what matters most.