Catering for dementia brings business benefits, bank finds

KBC has partnered with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland to provide training for staff

There are about 55,000 people in Ireland living with dementia. It has no respect for age and while it's more normally associated with older people, early onset can affect those in their late 40s and 50s. Dementia can make it difficult for people to remember things, to complete sentences and to understand what's being said to them, yet every day many people living with some level of cognitive impairment interact with Irish businesses from banks and supermarkets to the public service. These interactions don't always go well. The official may get impatient because the person is slow on the uptake. Then the customer gets upset because the official is terse with them and it ends up as a lose-lose situation. Roughly 4,000 new cases of dementia are diagnosed in Ireland each year and 63 per cent of those affected still live in the community.

Last year KBC bank, which employs more than 1,400 in Ireland, took steps to make itself more dementia friendly by providing dementia awareness training to front-line staff. The initiative grew out of KBC’s association with the Alzheimer Society of Ireland (ASI) which is its designated corporate charity.

KBC's employees get to choose the charity they support and three years ago they decided on ASI, a decision that somewhat surprised Aidan Power, director of customer, brand and marketing at the bank. "Our staff are mainly aged between 25 and 35 so you wouldn't think dementia would be high in their consciousness, but it turned out that so many people have been touched by Alzheimer's (the most common form of dementia) through family members and friends that our staff were passionate about supporting it," he says. And the support has gone further than fundraising. KBC has helped ASI to redesign its website and to provide tap-and-pay machines for donations. This was key because the increased use of cards means fewer and fewer people have loose change to put in collection boxes and the charity was losing out.

“So far 25 people have participated in the ASI dementia learning initiative and we have four sessions planned for 2020 which will add a further 120 to that,” Power says. “In looking at those who will attend, it will be wider than our 16 hubs and will include other customer-facing teams such as operations, for example, but all staff will have the opportunity to participate. We see the ASI-specific training as complementing our approach to how we engage with vulnerable customers. The Irish population is ageing, so more and more people are going to be living with some form of the condition in the years ahead and businesses need to be ready for that.”



Power sat in on the training and says it really opened his eyes to the problems people living with dementia face in everyday life. “In many respects, it was practical and based around common sense, but it allowed our staff to share their experiences of some of the problems they’ve encountered and it made everyone much more alert to the possibility that a customer might need a bit of extra help and much more able to recognise the symptoms and signs,” he says.

“Towards the end of last year we conducted some research with ASI to shine a light on some of the barriers facing people and families living with dementia,” Power adds. “Our research found that 71 per cent of those surveyed thought businesses should be more focused on assisting customers with dementia symptoms.”

Being a dementia-friendly business is not just a “nice to have”. It also has hard commercial benefits. People living with dementia still have spending power and they (and those looking after them) will switch their business to places where they feel comfortable and safe. Research carried out by the Alzheimer’s Society in the UK found that 83 per cent of those with memory problems had switched their shopping habits to places that were more accessible. There are also benefits for customer service as improved service to one cohort raises the bar overall.

Fergus Timmons, external learning and development manager with ASI, says that while the training ASI ran for KBC was bespoke and grew out of the existing relationship between the two organisations, ASI is more than willing to discuss bespoke or off-the-shelf dementia-awareness training with any company that approaches them. There is a modest charge for the training, based on a sliding scale.

To date much of ASI’s training has been for critical groups such as carers and family members, but there are signs of growing interest from the corporate community. So far, the training has been take up by organisations as diverse as the GAA museum and the Irish Men’s Sheds Association as well as by companies in the private and public sectors.

“The training covers topics such as what dementia is, its signs and symptoms and how to recognise them in your customers,” Timmons says. “It also covers communication, situations that may be encountered in the workplace and the financial-assisted decision-making act, as financial abuse is something that may be an issue in some situations. We would be delighted to speak to any company that would like to raise awareness of dementia among its employees and to promote a friendlier and more inclusive attitude towards those living with it.”