Why we became the first UK school trained in dementia awareness

David Hampson

David Hampson is headteacher at Alder Grange School in Rawtenstall, Rossendale. He first joined the school as head of Mathematics 21 years ago and has progressed to becoming Headteacher, as of September 2012. Ofsted has rated Alder Grange senior management outstanding since he became Headteacher and was privileged to be one of the 100 successful headteachers in the North West. David is always looking for new ways of helping the school, students and staff advance.

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I was at a community organisation meeting when I heard a statistic that stopped me dead in my tracks. One in three children in the UK is affected by dementia. This statement made me realise for the first time, the hidden impact of an illness we usually associate with old people. For me it meant a third of the students at my school, Alder Grange in Rawtenstall, would be touched by dementia.

"The training sessions have taught the students and staff how to be Dementia Friends."

Clearly, I had to act. So, I contacted a local dementia charity to find out how we could contribute. And that’s when it started to come together: arranging dementia awareness training for every single member of the school, staff and students.

Just a few weeks later, 900 students and 60 staff members at Alder Grange were ready to undergo dementia awareness training and become Dementia Friends in just one day. The training sessions have taught the students and staff how to be Dementia Friends. A Dementia Friend is able to go into their local area and assist someone who is affected by the condition. Helping them to live happily and feel safe within their community, within their homes.

My intention in organising the training was not just to help students deal with relatives diagnosed with dementia, but to provide them with the skills to be able to actively help sufferers locally.

There were a variety of tasks, discussions and activities during the sessions that helped the students get to grips with dementia.

An activity that captured the struggle of everyday tasks for dementia sufferers involved the students thinking about the process of getting dressed. The children stood in a line, each representing an item of clothing. Their task was to put themselves in the right order of getting dressed. They were then mixed up again and asked to reorder themselves.

The task demonstrated the confusion of such seemingly simple tasks for those with dementia. A lot of the students and even staff were shocked that it didn’t occur to them how difficult everyday tasks are for dementia sufferers.

The part of the training that struck me the most was the analogy they used to explain the loss of memory. They explained dementia using the idea of a bookcase, full of books representing memories. As dementia hits, the bookcase begins to rock and books fall away – memories are lost, the short term memories being the first to go. When we were shown how this applies to the emotions and feelings that sufferers go through the analogy became truly moving. It really hit home.
"They explained dementia using the idea of a bookcase, full of books representing memories."
But perhaps the most inspiring session was with a local resident, Kevin Swain. Kevin talked about what it has been like to live through the progression of dementia with his wife. His granddaughter Niamh is a student here at Alder Grange, so his story was very personal to us. He talked about the feeling of losing his wife, telling us about how dementia is like a bereavement to the family. That the person you love still lives, but isn’t actually there. He was also there to remind us that it is possible to live with dementia, especially in the early stages, and it is important to help make the sufferers life as easy and happy as possible.

As I looked around the room I could see the students of Alder Grange would come out of this training with their eyes opened. They are going to be much more aware of people around them who might act differently to expectations and they want to start helping those with dementia by volunteering and fundraising.

What difference will it make?

For the students who come to us ready to learn life skills, this lesson is going to teach them how to be caring and considerate to those around them. Giving them an understanding of dementia will benefit them in how they treat others, not only those with dementia but everyone around them.

Going back to the statement that started all of this – one third of children in the UK will be affected by dementia - I feel the students here will be ready, thanks to this training. That is exactly what I wanted.

For those with dementia, I feel this training will provide more care and comfort. My hope is it will lead to an improved quality of life for those in our community affected by dementia, either directly or as carers, through the support of our staff and students. Now it’s time for the word to spread.

Does your school train in dementia awareness? Share your thoughts below.

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