What does it mean to be a real 'Dementia Friend'?

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When I wear my poppy on Remembrance Day and go to a service, I’ve merely paid respect and shown that I’ve donated some money to veterans.  It does not make me an expert on veteran support or a “Veteran’s Friend”.  Maybe a ‘Dementia Friend’ badge should be awarded after you’ve done something, not merely because you have good intentions.

Some politicians wear their dementia badge like chat show hosts wear poppies in November. The woman in makeup sticks them on just before they go on and they are entirely for show.

What do we mean by a 'Dementia Friend'?

Lots of people want to be involved in dementia these days.  Nearly every politician I meet tells me that he or she is a ‘Dementia Friend’!  Does this make me happy? Well, no, actually, I’m deeply concerned. I feel like asking him or her, “What is it you are trying to tell me when you say that you are a ‘Dementia Friend’?” Did you give money? Do you volunteer? Who specifically are you helping this week? Or did you just sit through a little lecture about Alzheimer’s?

Lots of people want to be involved in dementia these days.  Nearly every politician I meet tells me that he or she is a ‘Dementia Friend’!  Does this make me happy? Well, no, actually, I’m deeply concerned.

“Dementia Friends” is a concept supported by Alzheimer’s organisations and because in general what they do is well meaning and aims to do good, it might be destructive to question their ideas in public, even if you think they don’t work. 

But questions need to be asked about the fact that people who need to know a lot more about how to support people with dementia and their carers, probably still don’t know much more than the basics in spite of their badge. 

It is different for a fire fighter, who might deal with dementia once in a while in a safety visit, or an emergency situation at work. A shop worker, or front line transport worker might occasionally do better in a conversation or avoid a muddle better with some basic information. This level of information is about right for them.

The importance of an appropriate level of skills

I feel sorry for health and social care staff who have been given the impression that they can learn all that is needed about dementia in a couple of hours or on line. Or that one person in the clinical area knowing about dementia can impart all the skills that are needed to the rest of the team. 

Being a real dementia friend - two ladies smilingI am very sorry for a lot of those who have been nominated as “dementia champions” but given no extra time or resources or even authority to make things happen in their own team.  Where it works it is brilliant but in too many places it is a matter of lip service.

The facts about dementia aren’t really that complicated but the skills needed are incredibly complex and sophisticated.  For example we know that it is important to get a good night’s rest. 

The skill comes in making that happen for someone with dementia and their carer or in hospital.  We know that the person should eventually give up driving. But the skill comes working out how to make that happen without agitation, anxiety and making someone’s home a prison for them and their spouse. 

Dementia ‘friends’ and ‘champions’ may be aware and know some of the facts, but we must not overstate what they can do. Especially health and social care staff should lose the badges and get skilled up properly.