Dementia is the name given to a group of symptoms which occur when the brain is damaged by a disease. These symptoms are progressive, affect many aspects of daily life and can be the result of many different diseases - the most common being Alzheimer’s Disease. It is estimated that over 850,000 living in the UK are currently affected by Dementia, 40,000 of those under the age of 65.
During 15th to 21st May 2016 the Alzheimer Society ran a hugely successful ‘Dementia Awareness Week’ campaign which sought to reach people who were concerned about Dementia and encourage them to seek help, support and information from the charity. In addition, the Society runs a scheme called ‘Dementia Friends’ which educates people about Dementia and how to support those affected by the disease and their families. ‘Friends’ and ‘Champions’ within the scheme are encouraged to turn their understanding into action and assist and educate people in their local communities.
Mayo Wynne Baxter has several seasoned ‘Dementia Friends’ within the firm and, as one of them, I went along to a Dementia Friends session in July hosted in Lewes. People attending these free information sessions range from relatives of people who have the disease to carers, older people who are concerned about themselves or a close friend and, as in my case, professionals who work closely with elderly people.
During my career I have met and worked for many clients who are living with Dementia in varying stages and have assisted them and their families with their legal and financial affairs. I have seen clients who on one afternoon believe that I am one of their closest relatives and the following week can recognise who I really am and understand why I am visiting them.
The Dementia Friends Champion who led the information session I attended explained that diseases which cause Dementia affect the synapses in the brain and stop these from firing as they should. One analogy often used to help people understand Dementia is a string of Christmas fairy lights - in a healthy person all of the lights, or synapses, are lit and firing normally, however, in a person living with Dementia some of these lights may be flickering or the bulb may have gone out altogether. On another day the bulbs that had previously been flickering may now be lit and other bulbs may be flickering or have gone out instead. This is one of the reasons that some people living with Dementia are still able to sign a Lasting Power of Attorney or to change their Will, as their capacity to understand what they are signing and the effect the document will have can change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, particularly in the early stages of Dementia. Generally, as the years pass more and more bulbs will start to flicker or will extinguish altogether.
Another analogy used is that of two bookcases. The books within the bookcases are the person’s memories, starting from the bottom shelves of childhood memories to the top shelves of their most recent experiences. The bookcase on the left represents a person’s emotional memory and is made of solid oak. The bookcase on the right is their factual memory and is made of flimsy chipboard. Dementia effectively ‘rocks’ the bookcases at an ever-increasing pressure and as a result some of the books, or memories, fall out. A lot more books fall from the top shelves of the flimsy bookcase, representing the loss of short-term factual memory which causes people to forget names, places etc, whereas less books fall from the stronger, oak bookcase containing our emotional memories. A person who has lived with Dementia for a while may have lost several shelves of factual memories, leading them to believe that they are living in a past century and that they are much younger than they really are, however as their emotional bookcase is stronger their personality is still intact. It is important to remember that Dementia will not change who they are.
People with Dementia will be able to recall feelings they have felt about a person or a place for much longer than they can recall that person’s name or the day a visit took place. This is just one very important reason to continue to visit and strive to improve the quality of life of a person living with even the most advanced Dementia, as the good feelings they have from your interaction will linger with them even if they cannot remember why.
People living with Dementia can also lose their sense of perspective and become unable to differentiate between two-dimensional and three-dimensional objects around them. For example, a printed or patterned tablecloth will quite often confuse or irritate them as they try to pick up or brush off the print. Nursing Homes are now starting to incorporate plain tablecloths and furniture to assist with these symptoms. A very common issue for people living with Dementia is a plain black doormat, which will present to them not as a doormat but as a large deep hole. They are not able to understand that they can walk over the mat but are so fearful that they will fall into the hole that they will simply become paralysed at the threshold of a building. If you ever happen to see an elderly person lingering outside the doorway of a shop or restaurant you may well be able to assist them simply by picking up the doormat and moving it to one side. This is why, at every one of Mayo Wynne Baxter’s offices, our doormats are either pale coloured or printed with our logo.
At Mayo Wynne Baxter we strive to be Dementia Friendly and will continue to learn and raise awareness about Dementia in order to better assist our elderly clients and their families. Clients are often concerned about the best way to deal with their personal and financial affairs should they be affected by Dementia in the future. Lasting Powers of Attorney enable you to appoint Attorneys to make decisions about your health, welfare, property and finances should you lose mental capacity or become unable to deal with these matters yourself. If you would like to talk about preparing for the future with Lasting Powers of Attorney please contact one of our legal advisors in our extensive Probate Trusts and Wills Team.
For more information about Dementia and the Dementia Friends campaign please go to www.alzheimers.org.uk/