In this blog post, Karen Harrison Dening, the Head of Research and Publications at Dementia UK, writes about the difficulty many public places might create for a person with dementia – as well as the huge difference that can be made by kindness and patience.
Dementia friendly postman
As I go about my ‘ordinary, everyday life’ – when not wearing my Dementia UK hat – I still seem to try and view the world through eyes that seek the most ‘dementia friendly’ of aspects. I cannot help it. Whether it is when I need to visit a public toilet – would a person with dementia feel able to use this toilet with ease? Is the toilet easily distinguishable from the white, designer tiles?
Whether it is when I am in an airport departure lounge and look with dismay at the plethora of signs. How would a person with dementia navigate this setting when I am having trouble! What simple changes could be made to help them navigate their way to Majorca successfully? Or whether it is in the local cinema. How would a person with dementia manage to use these stairs when the lights are down and the film is in full and loud flow?
This approach to viewing my world surprises me occasionally, as my scrutiny and questioning extends and expands across many settings, situations and events, so that little escapes my eye.
However, I was taken by (pleasant) surprise one day. It was a Thursday and I was in my local market town of Southwell, Nottinghamshire, working my way through a series of mundane chores that looked like they would keep me busy until lunch time. I had a parcel to send; some expensive (and probably completely frivolous) item of clothing that did not fit (and was quite inappropriate for a woman my age) so I wanted a refund.
As I stood in the queue for service, I slowly became aware of a conversation being held between the post office manager and a frail looking elderly lady. The post office manager was in the throes of advising the lady of the day; she believing it was Tuesday and pension day.
The way he sensitively handled the whole conversation was awe inspiring. His approach to communicating with this lady, who obviously had some form of dementia, was both skilled and empathic. He orientated her to the day being Thursday but also sensitively reassured her that she had in fact collected her pension on Tuesday and that he knew this because he had served her.
He then carefully steered the discussion to talking about every day, newsy issues, in a very successful attempt to allow her to feel comfortable with him and safe in his explanations, and in turn less distressed about her need to collect her pension. The way he handled this conversation would leave many professionals working in dementia care in awe of his skill, sensitivity and personal investment. He obviously had this type of encounter with her on a regular basis. As I left the post office I saw her walking contentedly down the main street, occasionally stopping to look in shop windows.
I was so moved that I contacted the post office customer services to ask if staff were provided with any training or education on dementia (essential given the average age of the regular post office customer), only to find out that it was next on the list after mental health awareness.
Being dementia friendly is not about training, clearly. It is about the ability to relate to the person, whatever their disability, whatever their issue. Therefore I take my (Dementia UK) hat off to this post man – you are just the ticket.