When it comes to understanding dementia and dementia care, I think we have definitely made a lot of progress in the past decade. It’s true we still have a long way to go, but overall when I reflect on the progress made, I feel hopeful.
Dementia has become a disease that is spoken about more now compared to 10 years ago. That may be because of the media or because people are doing their own online searches to find out about the condition.
There used to be a very big fear factor. Now, people are still afraid of getting dementia, but more people are aware of what it is and they’re more likely to do something to try to prevent it or to get a diagnosis.
It helps that there’s a lot of interest in healthy living in general now too. We know that there are lifestyle changes that are worth taking up to lower your risk of developing dementia, such as eating fewer processed foods and less sugar, exercising more, staying socially engaged and keeping your brain active. As medical professionals, we’re now saying to people, if it’s good for your heart, it’s good for your brain.
General practitioners are also better informed now, which means people are being diagnosed faster and can tap into support earlier. There are more services out there for people living with dementia too, so a diagnosis doesn’t mean they have to say goodbye to an active lifestyle and everyday activities they enjoy.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of work being done in Australia to promote ‘dementia-friendly communities’, including the training of staff in local services such as libraries, pools and shops to become more aware of and welcoming towards people with dementia.
Thanks to the numerous advances in technology in the past decade, people who have dementia are able to stay at home for longer.
Wayfinding is one example of technology that is now available. It can help if a person with dementia wants to go out independently, but may be in danger of getting lost.
Technology can also help remind someone to take their medication, send alerts when someone falls over and requires assistance, and there are even mechanical pets that can provide companionship.
A lot of research has been done on living environments in the past decade and how to help people with dementia – whether it be in a residential care situation, a retirement village, or the local community.
We now know that if we can create environments that are supportive, people with dementia can live longer and live well, because the environment becomes part of the therapy. It’s not disabling them — it’s enabling them to take part in life.
Residential aged care environments are moving away from the whole institutional model and becoming more home-like. This is thanks to a team of researchers who have developed a range of resources to investigate before building or renovating a facility.
We now have a substantial number of people living with dementia who have become advocates on behalf of others living with the illness. Kate Swaffer, from Dementia Alliance International, is just one of those people who is spreading the message of ‘do not talk about us, without us’.
People living with dementia are communicating about their lived experience in all sorts of ways, but especially via social media and online. They’re working hard to get their messages out there and to support one another.
People living with dementia are also demanding action for change and their opinions are essentially creating maps, showing the way forward, not only for the care sector, but the wider society as well.
I started Group Homes Australia in 2009 with the goal of offering small homes in the local community, with six to 10 residents living with 24-hour care. For me, I needed to create homes that I could put hand on heart and say ‘I could live here too’.
Now, I can definitely look at the Group Homes Australia model and say that if I did get dementia and I could no longer live at home, I’d be happy here. That’s my own litmus test. It’s been just over ten years since we began, and I feel we are on the right track.