Thursday, 29 January 2015

Room for dignity

A new toolkit aims to help smaller housing associations address the needs of residents suffering from dementia. Caroline Thorpe reports

Two in five people know a family member or close friend with dementia, estimates the UK government. If you’re not one of them, you probably know someone who is.

With that number set to rise, a new online toolkit aims to help smaller housing associations - those with fewer than 5,000 homes - assist the increasing numbers of their residents who suffer from dementia.

The toolkit, Working with smaller housing associations to create dementia-friendly organisations, produced by Orbit Charitable Trust, will launch this month. It is available online for free and builds on research conducted by the trust last year, which found that just 8 per cent of the 88 housing associations polled had a dementia strategy in place (Inside Housing, 21 August 2013).

With this in mind, here Inside Housing asks some of the trailblazing small landlords involved in designing the toolkit for their tips on creating dementia-friendly organisations. These range from awareness raising to much more practical design-related advice, such as using pictorial signage instead of words and numbers.

First up is Heantun Housing, a 1,250-home association based in Wolverhampton. Between April and December last year, the landlord spent £217,000 - almost a quarter of its ‘community services’ budget - on supporting 199 people living with dementia.

Training plan
‘We try to take account of people with dementia and their families in whatever we do, right from the moment someone walks into our reception,’ says Helen Garbett, service director at the organisation. ‘It’s something we’ve had to work quite hard at.’

To get up to speed, the landlord hired Professor Dawn Brooker, a dementia expert at Worcester University, to develop a year-long training programme for Heantun staff, which was completed last year.

The £10,000 course included six days of specialist training for 20 staff who work directly with dementia sufferers, and a one-day session for 100 staff from across the organisation, who then shared their learning with the rest of the 226-strong workforce.

‘We’ve done some broad evaluation [of the training] which has shown us there’s generally a feeling of more confidence among staff about recognising the signs of dementia,’ says Ms Garbett.

‘Awareness raising is where I’d start, because there’s quite a lot of myth-busting required around dementia. People are worried that they won’t perhaps know how to connect with [a sufferer].’

She adds that though Heantun ‘spent a lot of money’, raising awareness needn’t be costly. ‘There are organisations locally you can use for advice and support, such as Age UK, that are quite cost-effective. And the Alzheimer’s Society website is really informative.’

Innisfree Housing Association, established to meet the needs of London’s Irish community, is a case in point. John Delahunty, chief executive of the 500-home association, says two half-day training sessions for his 18 staff, provided by umbrella body Irish in Britain, came out of his regular training budget - although he declines to disclose how much it cost.

As well as learning to spot potential signs of dementia - such as a tenant falling into arrears after years keeping up with the rent - Mr Delahunty says staff are now ‘more confident about signposting tenants to services and making referrals, such as to the Alzheimer’s Society’.

Unexpected benefits
Mr Delahunty says becoming more dementia-friendly brings unexpected benefits, including reinforcing existing front line practice, ‘such as rehearsing the skill of having difficult conversations’.

Meanwhile in east London, 250-home Waltham Forest Housing Association became determined to become a dementia-friendly organisation after noticing an increase in the number of tenants showing early signs of the disease.

‘At the moment, of 211 sheltered tenants, I’ve got 47 with dementia. That’s quite a high proportion and probably 15 of them have extremely high needs,’ explains Cheryl Whittle, support services manager.

Ms Whittle is one of two ‘dementia champions’ at the association and advises: ‘Don’t panic too much about getting your dementia strategy done. First of all you need to look at any tenants who might have dementia, and what you can do to help them.’

She continues: ‘We’ve concentrated a lot on looking at design and space in our properties. At a couple of sites we’ve taken a tenant with onset dementia [early stages] on a walk around our schemes. They tell us what’s confusing for them on days when they’re not particularly lucid.’

Changes include installing toilet seats which contrast with the colour of the bowl, since dementia sufferers can struggle to distinguish similar shades. Similarly, the association will trial ‘pictorial signage’ in some of its mainly sheltered schemes, for example replacing floor numbers with animal posters for easier identification.

Alterations will be incorporated into planned maintenance cycles, or take place when tenancies change hands, to minimise costs. ‘The idea is to create a home for life, rather having to move people with onset dementia because their accommodation is unsuitable,’ says Ms Whittle.

Her boss, chief executive Linda Milton, welcomes Orbit Charitable Trust’s determination to raise dementia awareness among smaller landlords. ‘As small providers we’re all chugging along doing the brilliant work we do… But there’s a lot of sharing we can do to raise awareness and [provide] more people living with dementia with a greater degree of dignity,’ she says.

Did you know?

800,000
people currently have dementia in the UK

1.7 million
the estimated number of people in the UK with dementia by 2050

17,000
number of sufferers who are under 65

One in three
proportion of people over 65 who will die with dementia

Readers' comments (1)

  • Excellent article, but 'chugging' is not a word that I used in the interview!

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