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The Immersive Training That Is Putting Staff In The Shoes Of People With Dementia

Alexander Fleming

Alexander Fleming

Author

Health & Wellbeing

McCarthy & Stone is helping to increase the understanding of dementia with their new staff training scheme.


Attitudes towards dementia are changing. Once, a failing memory and confusion were considered an inevitable part of the ageing process and largely ignored as a mental health issue. Now, thanks to research and a changing culture of care in health and residential services across the country, people with dementia are increasingly being supported to live more fulfilling lives, helping to lessen the burden of this unpredictable condition on those who have it and those who support them.

One of the advances that has come out of the research of the past few decades – particularly thanks to pioneers such as the late Professor Tom Kitwood at the University of Bradford – is known as person-centred care. This means that a programme of care is built around the needs, interests and perspective of the individual with dementia, rather than simply treating their symptoms. It’s the ideal to which many care homes now aspire.

“The most important factor to consider is person-centred care,” says psychologist Alexander Fleming, health and wellbeing adviser for retirement housebuilder McCarthy & Stone. “The saying ‘If you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve met ONE person with dementia’ is very true. I have worked with a lot of great characters through my career and learned a lot of stories and that wouldn’t have been achieved without considering the person first before their dementia symptoms.”

Finding time

Simple everyday activities can become difficult for people suffering with dementia

However, such individualised care isn’t necessarily the easiest approach in, for example, a care home setting where staff have competing priorities and many people’s needs to attend to. Plus, the challenging and deteriorating behaviour that people with dementia often display can make it difficult for carers to find ways to understand their needs and preferences.

Therefore, shifting a culture of care to a person-centred approach has to be done carefully and deliberately, with support. McCarthy & Stone – which, while it isn’t a care home provider, does by the nature of its business come into contact with people with dementia – has embarked on the challenge of encouraging all of its staff to make commitments to ‘working better for people with dementia’. Alexander says: “Our overarching aim through this challenge is to create an environment that is inclusive, accepting and promotes quality of life for people living with dementia.”

As part of this work, the housebuilder has been training staff to understand dementia and the people who live with it better. One way it has been doing this is using the Virtual Dementia Tour (VDT), licensed by training provider Training 2 Care. The course participants wear a number of items: headphones that replicate noises such as banging doors and people talking; gloves that dull their sense of touch; insoles with smalls pins on them, producing the pins and needles sensation that is often a symptom of peripheral neuropathy; and glasses to mimic macular degeneration, a condition that creates tunnel vision. The participants are then told to carry out tasks to get an idea of how difficult people with dementia can find everyday activities.

How it feels

Family life can become strenuous and difficult when a family member suffers from dementia

For some members of staff, even those who are very experienced in dementia care, the experience has been revelatory. Elaine Gibbs, Area Manager for the South West, completed the training in October 2016. “I have worked in elderly care for over 25 years and have completed several training courses in dementia care,” she says. “The VDT was a complete eye-opener. It gave me an insight into the life of someone with the condition: it was by far the most powerful learning experience you could possibly have. I personally felt very vulnerable and exasperated, especially when things were taken from me when I was trying to complete a task.”  

Induction Manager North Ruth Turner was at the same VDT session as Elaine. She says: “I think dementia care can be much improved if carers fully understand how it feels to be living with dementia. This was a great way to get the physical experience of it. When I think back to it, I can still feel the sense of being completely lost.”

Both Elaine and Ruth believe that the VDT will help them provide more person-centred care to the families that they work with who are affected by dementia, because they understand better what people with dementia might be going through. Ruth puts it simply: “It makes you think carefully about how someone might be feeling.”

And this is exactly the point of the training, says Alexander. “Dementia means so many things to different people, different definitions, different experiences and stories. The more we all know about dementia, the more we can do to help and understand the disease we are dealing with.” 

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