IT’S a simple fact that as life expectancy extends, and growing numbers of people celebrate 100th birthdays and beyond, so the number of people living with dementia also rises.
Forecasts suggest that, by 2038, twice as many people as now - 1.4 million across the UK - will be living with dementia.
That means many more families are facing the prospect of looking for the best way to positively support loved ones who can no longer live independently.
And the care home system too is having to develop new strategies for coping with the increased demand for specialist dementia care.
SheffCare, the registered charity that operates 11 residential care homes across Sheffield, is now devoting 25 per cent of its capacity to residents with dementia.
Leading the way has been Springwood, the Herries Road residential home that was the first in the group to develop specialist dementia facilities and now has 24 rooms specially adapted for people living with dementia.
The home also has many small rooms to allow a variety of activities and space where families can spend time together.
In the south of the city, the charity has built facilities at Cotleigh residential care home in Hackenthorpe, and four further SheffCare homes are being partially converted to offer dementia care across the city.
The pioneering Springwood project is led by manager Anita Bland, who said the key to successful dementia care has to be providing the correct level of support for both residents and their families.
“We want to maintain people’s wellbeing by making use of the outdoors, walking, shopping, and enjoying life including doing household chores,” she said.
“It’s about fulfillment and maintaining skills. Engaging with people and families - that’s what our focus is.
“Our role is about getting to know each individual and finding out what makes their day worth living, encouraging them to maintain skills or develop new ones, helping them to find a sense of purpose and involving family and friends in the daily routine by making visits more enjoyable for everyone.”
One of the key elements of the strategy was the development of a family kitchen area, a place where visitors can meet in a relaxed atmosphere surrounded by familiar spaces rather than the unknown.
This is particularly important if youngsters are being encouraged to visit for, as Anita points out, it is still important for families and friends to spend quality time together.
“In everyday life you wouldn’t visit someone and spend the whole visit in their bedroom,” Anita points out. “It’s not the natural thing to do.
“Children particularly find that strange, so we found that by developing the family kitchen, a cosy, familiar domestic space, everybody can relax.”
The kitchen also gives residents the chance to enjoy activities such as baking and flower arranging – things they would have done in the past and which can help them to retain a sense of who they are in the present.
“We have one lady who spent all her working life in a fish and chip shop and can peel a potato faster than anybody on the team!” Anita says.
“We realised there was no reason at all that she shouldn’t be able to continue doing what had been such an important part of her life and as long as someone keeps an eye on her there was no danger to her at all - why should there be?”
It’s the same with such simple daily tasks as washing the pots, rinsing items of clothing and putting them out to dry, and even doing some ironing.
For a person living with dementia in their own home, such domestic chores can be fraught with danger but with the home’s specialist team, keeping an eye on things, the simplest tasks become as much a part of the daily routine as they ever were.
Duncan Bell, SheffCare’s chief executive, adds: “Too many modern homes think they are helping the resident by taking away responsibility for doing daily chores – but in fact it has been shown time and time again that people respond best when they participate in all aspects of daily living. We aim to achieve that in a safe setting.”
Another innovative project has been the introduction of Empathy Dolls – baby dolls that stimulate some unexpected responses.
“We realised what an effect a doll could have when a young visitor left one behind and one of our residents picked it up and started to interact with it,” Anita recalls.
“We have one gentleman who is very quiet and introducing the doll raised affection and memories for him as if it was his own child or grandchild. It was a wonderful experience for everyone.
“It’s not about going into a second childhood or simply playing with dolls again - what the dolls are doing really is satisfying a basic nurturing instinct, providing contact like cuddling, talking and rocking, giving an outlet for love and affection, all the things that can then stimulate verbal communication, which is often one of the things that is lost.
“For residents whose memories have perhaps returned to the time when they were younger, and they imagine once again that they are parents with children to look after, it actually helps by stopping them worrying about getting home to the kids.”
Similarly, the Springwood team has also discovered the positive effect of dog therapy, with visits by pets providing a renewed sense of companionship and sensory stimulation and even helping with exercise.
Gardening, or simply getting outdoors, provides another vital link to the everyday, and there’s no reason either for families to worry that a person suffering with dementia will never be able to go for a walk again because, again with the proper supervision, it’s the sort of gentle exercise that can provide vital stimulation.
Springwood has one male resident in particular who loves to help out, insisting on carrying ladies’ bags after a trip to the shops, opening taxi doors for them, and so on.
“What I want to see is a change in the culture of care,” Anita says. “It’s about being more people-focused, about offering people dignity in care, taking a person-centred approach and not rigid routines.
“We aim to focus not on the diagnosis but on the continued wellbeing of the person.
“If people with dementia are well hydrated, well nourished and get plenty of fresh air and personal encouragement, I really do feel we can begin to fill in the gaps that dementia has left in their lives.
“By working together as residents, staff and families, we can transform the daily lives of our residents, especially those living with dementia.”
n The Department for Work and Pensions has released a report detailing life expectancy in 2011 and comparing the generations at 20, 50 and 80 years old:
20-year-olds are three times more likely to reach 100 than their grandparents, and twice as likely as their parents.
n While a girl born in 2011 has a one-in-three chance of living to their 100th birthday, a boy has a one-in-four chance.
n Compared to a baby born in 1931, the children of 2011 are almost eight times more likely to become centenarians.
n Predictions by the Office for National Statistics estimate the likelihood of reaching 100 by looking either at your age now or the year of your birth. They show that, by 2066, there will be more than half a million people in the UK aged 100 or over.