Meredith Gresham on Fostering a different attitude to dementia

Written by Active Minds on Monday the 15th of July 2013.


Photograph: Supplied (via The Sydney Morning Herald)

“Thank you for that. I can’t remember what I did, but I know I enjoyed it!”

Meredith Gresham, an Occupational Therapist and a Senior Consultant (Research and Design) at HammondCare’s Dementia Centre in Australia, wrote a great piece for The Sydney Morning Herald in January of this year in which she started to put forward the case for a change in attitude  to dementia; one with more hope and happiness, than despair and coping.

Gresham starts her article with a charming anecdote drawn from an experience she had whilst at university where she witnessed an elderly lady step off a bus and turn to the driver to exclaim,

“Thank you for that. I can’t remember what I did, but I know I enjoyed it!”

She uses this example to illustrate her point that while those with dementia might forget events quickly (even those that have only just taken place), emotional memory lingers.

It’s an incredibly important point she makes. And it puts huge emphasis on pleasurable events and activities being a truly beneficial and profitable part of the lives of those who have dementia.

Is it a pointless experience if it is just going to be forgotten minutes later? The answer is “No”, or so Gresham argues. She doesn’t believe that the capacity for feeling emotion is lost in a person living with dementia, and although the details of ‘what’ may not be recalled, the feeling might be. And if the feeling lives on, then the enjoyable experience/ activity/ event itself is certainly not pointless.

She goes on to make a comparison using the way babies (whose functionality, she says, is much the same as a person with dementia) are engaged with vs. the stark contrast of how older people are often engaged with, in terms of positivity:

Babies are cared for in terms of stimulation and enrichment, while older people’s care seems to become about coping/ managing, leaving very little room for joy and spontaneity.

Perhaps it is because the baby is so full of potential – a life beginning – that we are somehow programmed to respond in this way. Conversely, an older adult with dementia, at the end of life, represents the endings, mortality, which we all find confronting to some degree”, Gresham writes.

Is this contrast in positivity in the way that we deal with new life vs. old life stopping us, and those we care for, from living life to its fullest?

She and her colleague go on to scour the internet and libraries for entries, books, links or resources which might talk of dementia in terms of joy, happiness of contentment and she says their searches, sadly, yield next-to-nothing.

Turning to her own bookshelf in search of a glimmer of hope, she finally finds some in the words of Tessa Perrin in her book Wellbeing in Dementia;

The more people see that people with dementia, when given the correct support and care, can live rewarding and happy lives, the less cause there will be for fear of the condition.”

In conclusion, Gresham argues, we must shift our attitudes to dementia by having

  • Less fear

  • More awareness (‘of our own loss of positivism’)

  • and more HOPE

You can read the full article here.