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The right support for people living with dementia

30 Mar 2020, by Amy Sarcevic

Anne has always loved writing poetry. It was the one thing she would look forward to in English classes at school, and, later in life, was her go-to pastime when the children were busy. Or to escape the stress of her day job as an English teacher.

Anne’s care worker doesn’t know this about her though. Nor does she know that meaningful cognitive exercise can offset amyloid and tau pathology, slowing down symptoms of dementia – a condition Anne has lived with for nearly two years now.

As a result, Anne, aged 78, spends most of her days sitting in a communal lounge area in front of a television set, drowsy from medication. Every day giving in a little more to her apathy – an often paralysing symptom of dementia.

However, it is not her care worker’s fault. Aside from being too overworked to give Anne the attention she needs, her care worker has never received any formal dementia education. Her Manager, who has a nursing degree, hasn’t either.

With dementia now affecting at least 50 -70 per cent of residents in aged care facilities, there has never been a more pressing time to build the capacity and capability of aged care workers.

Additionally, with the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety highlighting the extent to which people experience neglect in the current aged care system, experts are calling for change.

Dr. David Sykes – a Director at Dementia Australia’s (DA) Centre for Dementia Learning and Dementia Training Australia (DTA) – is one of them. Ahead of the National Dementia Conference, he outlines several key improvements the industry must make to support those living with the condition.

Dementia-specific education

Dementia is a complex, umbrella term, with more than 100 varieties and a diverse set of symptoms, which vary greatly between individuals. Compounding this, the symptoms evolve considerably throughout the trajectory of the condition, which consists of several different stages.

With such a wide variety of factors to consider, expert knowledge, and a comprehensive understanding of the individual, is key to providing the appropriate support, Dr. Sykes argues.

“Often nursing and other undergraduate degrees just touch on the subject of dementia, but not to the extent where graduates could be considered an expert on the subject,” he said.

“Whilst there are a growing number of dementia education programs available – through DA and DTA – they are trying to fill a significant gap in the current levels of dementia education provided to staff entering aged care. This gap exists at both a vocational and tertiary level.”

Minimum standards of education

In addition, the current system does little to incentivise participation in dementia training, Dr. Sykes highlights.

“Without meaningful career pathways for those with dementia training – and mandatory requirements for frontline workers to have these qualifications – we are unlikely to see a shift in the standard of care provided,” he said.

Dr. Sykes would like to see minimum education standards introduced for direct care workers and tertiary trained staff throughout Australia; and annual professional development to keep staff up-to-date with contemporary practices.

He believes these measures would significantly lift industry standards and improve the quality of care provided.

“With the right expertise in the industry, people living with dementia in aged care are likely to achieve better care outcomes and experience an improved quality of life,” he argued.

Application of knowledge

Dr. Sykes believes that, unless staff are supported to apply this knowledge in their work, there is unlikely to be a significant shift in current practices.

“We know that 90 percent of learning occurs on the job. So, having strong leadership which supports a culture of learning – and where there are staff trained to provide coaching and mentoring – is key,” he said.

Dr. Sykes also advocates the development of dementia practice leaders, to help provide mentoring and coaching support to other workers; and lift the quality of care.

“We need key staff at the coalface who have sufficient dementia expertise and experience, to coach and mentor others in taking a different approach,” he argued.

Dr. Sykes believes progress is already slowly beginning to happen in this space. He acknowledges the growing number of industry peaks and providers that are focusing on leadership development programs, coaching and mentoring; and says this is “encouraging to see”. However, the industry as a whole is still not where it needs to be.

To bolster industry’s efforts on this front, The Centre for Dementia Learning is currently piloting a community of practice model to better support dementia practice leaders across the aged care sector.

Giving further commentary on this David Sykes will address the National Dementia Conference, hosted by Informa Connect. The event is due to take place 15-16 October 2020 in Melbourne.

Learn more and register here.

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