From planting gardens to planting ideas – what we’re doing to make life better for people with dementia

The UK Dementia Congress helps us reflect on the many ways we can improve our communities for people with dementia, says Philly Hare.

The heart of any dementia-friendly community or organisation is inclusion – and this challenges us to make changes in many spheres. Some of these have been highlighted this week at the UK Dementia Congress in Brighton. At the event, which closes today, JRF’s Vicky Thompson and I launched a new short film on ‘Becoming a dementia-friendly organisation’, and Toby Williamson’s new publication on positive risk-taking was also launched.

One key challenge in any dementia-friendly community is to pay much more attention to the design and layout of the physical environment. This may feel like a ‘nice extra’ – but it’s worth remembering that dementia is classed as a long-term disability and, as such, is covered by the Equality Act. So not only it is it morally right that we should address this issue, it is also a legal duty.

At Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT), we have started by identifying some achievable goals. Our new short film, Making our places and spaces dementia-friendly, shows how Vicky, one of JRHT’s gardeners, is building dementia-friendly design principles into her planting schemes – and at the same time, creating positive relationships with residents who have dementia.

The same principles are being applied to the development of the Homestead Park, which surrounds JRF’s headquarters in York, with local people with dementia fully involved in the process from the start. The film also shows how we have refurbished the Folk Hall – an important community space in New Earswick, York – to be more accessible and welcoming to people with dementia. This is the start of a major new scheme we are developing to ensure New Earswick village is a ‘community for all ages’. In all these examples, people with dementia and their carers have been involved as expert advisers. This ongoing work is highlighting the importance not only of signage, toilets, surfaces, lighting and acoustics, but also of the concept of ‘positive risk-taking’. Like all housing and care providers, we need to balance the positive benefits from taking risks against the negative effects of attempting to avoid risk altogether.

Our new publication points out that dementia-friendly neighbourhoods or communities are not risk-free – but also that the risk-averse, apparently safe option (perhaps of staying indoors all the time) comes with its own, very real, risks of exclusion, boredom and low self-esteem. Other recent JRF research has also shown that our approach to risk must be relationship-centred and based on the understanding that we are all human and different.

Finally, attitudes and understanding are perhaps the single most important element of the dementia-friendly community. We are rolling out a programme of Dementia Friends sessions throughout our organisation, and also, for our care staff, using the virtual dementia tour – a sensitivity training programme that gives people a greater understanding of the daily challenges facing people with dementia.