Dementia – reclaiming the family

Dementia is a cruel and dreaded diagnosis. As a progressive disease with no cure, it can overwhelm families and leave them feeling confused, angry and hopeless. But so much can be done to support individuals and families dealing with dementia. There are ways of reducing psychological distress and reclaiming ownership of family relationships.

We were really inspired to hear about Lauren Laverne’s work to launch m4d – a radio station for people living with dementia and their carers. This radio station is free of advertisements, has era specific music and will have dedications for someone affected by dementia. Their aim is to reduce social isolation by connecting with people through music. Music also has the power to stimulate memories and increase emotional well-being.

Dr Jocelyne Kenny has lot of experience in this area. She is a clinical psychologist and systemic practitioner here at Pocket Family Psychologist but previously worked in the NHS providing psychological interventions and family work to those living with dementia. This is what she has to say about working in this area:

“There are only two things we can be certain of when dealing with dementia and both are pretty bleak. First, it gets progressively worse. Second, there is currently no known cure. Funnily enough, I often see the family struggling more with these facts than the person living with dementia. I think knowing that things will definitely get worse, but with no clear timeline, is a very difficult uncertainty to live with. Often, anxiety runs riot within the family and can lead to a whole array of emotions, including anger, guilt, sadness and fear of the future. Sometimes, the impact of these emotions within a family can be more destructive than the dementia itself. Emotions can get in the way of supporting each other, the ability to live in and enjoy the present moment and block important family problem solving abilities. In my experience, people living with dementia and their families adjust to the diagnosis in the most adaptive way when a ‘family approach’ is taken. Being able to listen to each other’s fears and hopes, and work with these to support each other, has great outcomes”. 

Psychological research in this area shows that being a relative or caregiver to someone diagnosed with dementia can take a significant toll on mental health and wellbeing. 61% of carers have reported their health had suffered with around 20-33% reporting significant levels of depression when caring for a family member with Dementia. Coping strategies such as wishful thinking and blame were associated with overall higher levels of anxiety in caregivers.

Family based therapy can create a space for family members to acknowledge, express and process their grief and anger. This can increase acceptance of the disease along with the difficult thoughts and feelings it provokes. This in turn, can reduce the need for unhelpful coping strategies such as blame, denial and wishful thinking.  Family members can be supported to take charge and become more active participants in the unwanted journey, regaining a sense of ownership and direction.

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"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)