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Were ‘dementia friendly communities’ the correct approach after all?


Some time ago, the Alzheimer’s Society embarked on a programme of making a million (then two million etc.) “Dementia Friends”. These “Dementia Friends” were community ambassadors, not specialists in dementia, who went out to explain in standardised 45-minute chunks what dementia is.

To gauge how successful it has been has turned out to be rather difficult. To the best of my constructive knowledge, despite this investment costing millions, there has never been a peer-reviewed publication on the outcomes of that programme which consumed significant public money. The simple fact is, if this had been a project run by a social enterprise, it would have been subject to the most detailed of examination on value-based returns on investment.

I have no ideological beef with the Alzheimer’s Society. Far from it, I think in the last few years they have been uniquely successful in raising the brand awareness and brand identity of themselves and dementia. When the Health and Social Care Act (2012) was torpedoed by parliament, placing an emphasis on competitive tendering (despite much protesting otherwise), this was a useful competitive advantage for a lot of dementia policy.

There are well rehearsed arguments of where “dementia friendly communities” have been criticised, not just for the United Kingdom but in Japan. For example, it has been mooted whether the programme was primarily for the benefit for actual people living with dementia (here defined as people who’ve been diagnosed with dementia, not merely living with someone with dementia), or a carer. Or neither – it might have been primarily for the benefit of a high street shop or bank. Anyway, at the time, the ideology of behavioural insights and Nudge was beginning to gain momentum.

Indeed, Dementia Alliance International and Alzheimer’s Disease International, and indeed I, had some success in changing the vocabulary aware from ‘friendliness’, which for some denoted a rather patronising twang of ‘does he take sugar?’, to one of inclusivity and accessibility.

Where the Dementia Alliance International then had undoubted success, with the work of Kate Swaffer and Peter Mittler predominantly, was having ‘first mover advantage’ in realising the relevance of the United Nations Convention of Rights for People with Disabilities to the lives of people with dementia. I then discussed the importance of this to the World Health Organization’s policy of sustainable development goals, long before others “joined in”.

But I’m tempted now to heat and eat a strong dollop of humble pie. On the one hand, I have argued, quite vociferously, that promoting health must be a component of promoting wellbeing, and it was hard to sustain positive outcomes in dementia friendly communities against a backdrop of austerity or cuts, or a NHS and social care system perceived by many to be struggling to meet demand due to inadequate funding.

But actually, as put forward by the Alzheimer’s Society themselves, the experience of someone living with dementia, and his or her immediate friends or family, does not stop in a GP’s surgery or an acute admission. There is a wider community, where housing and transport could be ‘dementia friendly’.

Apart from a separate argument of whether it is appropriate to address persons in identity by one of their principal diagnoses (a conflict with person-centred approaches), it is evident to me that there is a strong argument for addressing the health assets of all people.

Indeed, as Chris Roberts, a leading campaigner in the UK said, and I hope that I’m not misquoting him, what is likely to be ‘dementia friendly’ is likely to be friendly for everyone. Should there be also  “frailty friends” or “cancer friends” for balance?

Taking a medical model of dementia even characterised by complexity and comorbidity, Chris’ approach is practical. Also, a move towards dealing with health assets would be a direct way of addressing health inequalities or the social determinants of health.

It also attempts to address the question of ‘what makes you healthy?’ as opposed to ‘what makes you ill?’  I feel that you can only measure value but asking people to identify what outcomes matter to them (ask ‘what matters to you?’ rather than ‘what’s the matter with you?’)

I remember first criticising ‘dementia friendly communities’ saying that it should be ‘dementia friendly networks’ (or similar), reflecting a potential online connectivity of all persons. But I am inclined to do a volte face on this too, in that it might not be possible to address all inclusion needs for people living alone with dementia from an app on a smartphone. As it happens, these are exactly the sorts of people who are genuinely ‘seldom heard’ at all – not just in conferences, but seldom heard from the NHS and social care radar until crisis point is sadly reached.

I think it’s now likely a more pro-active approach with advance care planning is needed to promote health assets for older people living with dementia and/or frailty. This is not simply a question of bean-counting, for the avoidance of admissions. This is not simply a question of reducing mortality or reducing morbidity, or being more cost effective. This, I feel, is good common sense?




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