Dementia sufferers must be treated with respect


HEALTHCARE PROVIDERS working with patients suffering from dementia must recognise that the patient remains a person and must be treated as such, irrespective of how debilitating their disease may be, a world expert on dementia has told a conference in Ireland.

Dr Geri Hall, adjunct professor and advanced practice nurse at the Memory Disorders Clinic, Department of Neurology, University of Iowa, told a gathering hosted by HSE South of about 300 healthcare professionals in Cork that they should never lose sight of the patient’s humanity.

“The first thing you have to do is recognise that patients are still people and they don’t become blobs and that they understand at least at some level what is going on and happening to them through the entire illness,” she said.

“Even patients at the very end of their disease will have these moments of clarity and they will let you know that they understand what’s going on and that can be very frightening for most of us,” she added.

Dr Hall said it was important to ensure that those with dementia and memory disorders continue to take part in activities. This involved building very ordinary aspects of their lives, such as eating, into a structured and, if possible, social activity.

“For example, you try to make eating an activity – you just don’t throw a tray of food in front of them but you encourage them to perhaps queue for food in a canteen situation, encourage them to eat with other people, so it becomes a social activity.”

Dr Hall said her youngest patient developed dementia at the age of 22, but that was quite an exceptional case with only between 1 and 2 per cent of the population developing the illness before they reach 65, although many who develop hereditary dementias will do so in their late 30s or early 40s.

“Informing a patient that they have dementia can be difficult, but patients often know themselves. It’s important to work with them and their families to help them address the condition as positively as possible.

“The patients are coming in for help and you have got to look at dementia as a regular disease like cancer or diabetes. It’s a disease and the more matter of fact we can be about it without being cold and encouraging the family to talk about it, the better off we are going to be.”

The conference was organised jointly by St Finbarr’s Hospital Nursing Dept and the Dept of Psychiatry of Old Age (South Lee Cork) to mark the opening of the Challenging Behaviour Unit for people with dementia at St Finbarr’s Hospital.

Dr Eleanor Mullan, consultant in psychiatry of old age, HSE South Lee Mental Health Services, said the unit was one of the first of its kind in Ireland. “The ward environment and care style is specifically tailored for people affected by dementia with behavioural disturbance who require medium- to long-term care,” she said.