Creating dementia-friendly communities

SUPPORT: Forget me not program participants enjoyed a range of activities including craft and pool.
SUPPORT: Forget me not program participants enjoyed a range of activities including craft and pool.

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IT’S HOPED a program that brings together primary schoolers and older people who live with dementia will improve awareness and understanding of a condition that affects one in 10 Australians over 65 and 3 in 10 over 85.

Lead researcher of the University of South Australia (UniSA)’s Forget me not program Dr Ashleigh Smith said the program aims to break down the stigma often attached to dementia.

“Dementia is a clustering of progressive neurodegenerative conditions, affecting cognition, memory, and behaviour with no cure,” she said. “And while many people living with dementia live well, they do benefit greatly from social interactions as these generate memories, creativity and imagination, all cognitively stimulating factors that may help slow the progression of the disease.

“The Forget me not program provides many opportunities for social interaction, and enables primary school students to learn from older people living with dementia, while the older people are able to take on a role as teachers and mentors through positive interactions.”

Every three seconds, someone in the world is diagnosed with dementia. In Australia alone, the number living with dementia is projected to increase from about 425,416 to 1.1 million by 2056. 

Despite its growing prevalence, dementia is often misunderstood and stigmatised. Dementia education for children subscribes to the idea people are more likely to be understanding and accepting when they encounter someone with dementia if they have learnt about it while they are young.

Fellow Forget me not researcher Melissa Hull from the UniSA School of Health Sciences said the eight-week program developed in partnership with the City of Unley, Unley Primary School and aged-care provider, ECH  involved delivering weekly lessons about dementia to 90 Year Four and Five Unley Primary School students.

The team worked with resources developed by the University of NSW’s Dr Jess Baker as part of the Kids4Dementia program, also a classroom-based dementia education program where students learn a person with dementia is indeed a person and not someone to be frightened of or to be laughed at or ignored.

Ms Hull said students in the Forget me not program also took part in collaborative art lessons with people living with dementia at the ECH Day Program at Henley Beach.

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“Art and craft activities were based around a ‘corner store’ theme – something everyone could relate to, and that prompted many discussions such as ‘what was it like going to the store back in your day?’ and ‘this is how do we do it these days’” she said.

“There were activities like fabric painting, with the fabric being made into boomerang (re-usable) bags, gardening projects such as building wicking bottles, creating murals and, unexpectedly, there was a pool table at the ECH facility so some students enjoyed pool with the clients.”

While results of the program were still being evaluated, initial feedback suggested it had been a positive experience for both younger and older participants.

“(The older participants) mostly enjoyed being around the youngsters and there was generally a real positivity, feelings of belonging and a sense of energy that came with it,” Ms Hull said, adding the students were able to gain a practical understanding of concepts covered in their dementia-based lessons.

“This included how to communicate with someone who has dementia and what an aged care facility looks like, which was something new for many of the students,” she said.

Ms Hull said the youngsters’ experience would hopefully help shape dementia-friendly communities: “It’s about what basic things in a community can help someone with dementia – we were looking at it with the understanding that kids today were going to be tomorrow's shop owners or bank managers interacting with people from a wide range of backgrounds, including those who have dementia.”

As dementia did not discriminate by geography, Ms Hull said, there was no reason why the program could not be extended to expand the program to other areas if funding became available to do so. Ms Hull recently made presentations about the Forget me not program during the recent Science Week and further presentations were planned. Meanwhile, she said aspects of the dementia-based lessons for students could be adopted by anyone who had friends or relatives with dementia.

“Including the biggest thing we stressed to the kids, which was to have patience –  the person with dementia is not trying to frustrate you by asking a question multiple times, for example, as they themselves would prefer not to do that,” she said.

Unley Primary School Principal Peter O’ Sullivan said with people living longer, more families were exposed to dementia and were often ill-equipped to explain its complexities to their children: “This program teaches children lifelong skills such as communication, empathy and compassion whilst also educating them about the ever-growing issue of dementia.”

The Forget me not program was developed with support from the State Government’s Office for the Ageing and the UniSA Research Themes Investment Scheme grants.