Paving the way to dementia-friendly communities
It was February 2017. I had just started working for a local charity, providing support to vulnerable adults in the community. I was still getting my head around the role when I received a referral for someone whom I shall here refer to as Bill. The referral stated that Bill ‘has a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease’. I’ll admit I was nervous – I’d not had much experience with dementia in my personal life, so was basing my expectations on what I’d heard in the media. I was picturing Bill as being potentially aggressive, incoherent or completely unaware of my presence at all.
I arrived at Bill’s and was greeted by a well-groomed, pleasant gentleman who immediately offered me a cup of tea. I walked into his house and was met with hundreds of books – Bill enthusiastically told me all about his passion for reading and showed me some of his favourites. The next hour flew by; Bill told me all about fighting in the war, spoke fondly of his daughter who was living abroad, teared up a little when talking about his wife’s passing, and confessed his passion for quizzes. I left the visit feeling utterly confused. This was a man who had captivated me with his life history, who clearly felt happiness and sadness as strongly as I did, and who had completely defied my expectations of dementia.
As I met more and more people with the condition, I began to realise that these were a group of people from whom I could learn great amounts. I continually left visits inspired by what it was like to be evacuated as a child, and the challenges of raising a family in south London in the 1950s.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m sure a lot of people reading this have had difficult experiences of dementia, and perhaps connect more strongly with the idea that dementia is a cruel disease where a person slowly loses everything. Of course, dementia is going to affect the person’s life in many ways, and most people will require support to carry on living an independent life for as long as possible. However, plenty of people living with the condition are still able to form relationships, socialise, and continue to be key members of the community for a long time after diagnosis.
I realised that I was in quite a unique position by having the opportunity to spend time with a range of people with dementia. Amongst most of my peers, a diagnosis of dementia still amounted to little better than a death sentence. It was due to this that I decided to look into how I could raise awareness, and I came across Alzheimer’s Society’s opportunity to train to become a Dementia Friends Champion. The training would teach me how to deliver hour-long sessions to members of the community in order for them to become a Dementia Friend. That is, that they would have a better idea of how dementia affects the person, help to dispel some of the myths and discuss how people with dementia can be supported to live well in the community.
I can honestly say this was one of the most inspiring days of my professional career; any doubts I had about delivering a Dementia Friends information session were quickly eradicated. The training explains clearly how to deliver each of the activities in a Dementia Friends Session, and how to adapt these to different audiences when necessary. The Dementia Friends session manages to cover so much information, but allows everyone to really engage with the material so they don’t feel overwhelmed. The Champion training also spent some time focusing on presentation skills and gave me a chance to practise in front of the rest of the group. Not only did this eliminate some of the nerves I had about presenting, it was also a great experience to get some feedback about my presentation style. I’ve taken this advice forward in my role as a Champion and applied it to work-based presentations too.
After the Champion training, I was ready to deliver my first session. I was encouraged to deliver this to one or two friends or family members. This was an excellent way to start as it got me in the right mindset and ironed out any kinks, and it was far less daunting than presenting to a group of strangers. As my confidence has grown, I’ve presented to larger groups, with my largest session to date being to an audience of 60–70. I’ve also been blown away by the amount of people in my personal life who have been wanting to know more about dementia but haven’t known who to ask, who have been truly grateful for the opportunity to learn more.
In terms of practicalities, being a Dementia Friends Champion is one of the most flexible forms of volunteering I’ve come across. Once you complete the training, you can choose when and where you run your sessions and can choose the size of the group you present to depending on what you’re most comfortable with.
The programme doesn’t need you to commit to a specific time every week, so it’s much easier to work around childcare, work or other life hassles. You’ll be allocated a Dementia Friends Officer who is contactable by phone and email; they’re always helpful with whatever problem you have, be that practical support or just helping with those last-minute nerves.
To get involved, just visit www.dementiafriends.org.uk/register-champion, and book a training day. The training assumes no previous knowledge of dementia, and if, after the training, you decide volunteering isn’t for you, you can just let them know and they won’t pressure you to deliver any sessions. So why not take a look today and help Bill and thousands of others living in the UK by making your community a safe and supportive place for those living with dementia.
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