As new figures reveal that the percentage of people living with dementia in Sunderland has taken its steepest rise in five years, Louise Bradford explores what support is available for people who have recently been diagnosed with the condition, and their loved ones.

Dementia is a brain disease that affects more than 850,000 people nationally, a figure that has seen a steep rise, as GPs and healthcare professionals get better at spotting the signs and making a diagnosis.

A new report published by Public Health England shows that 2452 people (0.87 per cent of the Sunderland population) are currently living with the condition, up from 0.75 per cent in 2013/14. The figures put Sunderland among the highest 50 areas in the country for prevalence of dementia.

“It can be both a blessing and a heartbreak to learn you have dementia,” says Age UK Sunderland director Alan Patchett.

“It’s sometimes a relief for people who perhaps have found themselves experiencing the often distressing early signs of dementia. They finally understand what has been going on. At the same time, though, it can be a desperately anxious time, because so many of us have seen how later stages of dementia can take away the essence of a person and nobody wants to go through that.

“However, as we become better at making a diagnosis of dementia, we are also improving the support available for people living with the condition in Sunderland, and recognising and responding to the needs of those who look after them.”

Thanks to funding from Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), Age UK Sunderland is working in partnership with Sunderland Carers’ Centre, The Alzheimer’s Society and other voluntary groups across the city to provide a dedicated support to people in the early stages of dementia and their carers, thanks to the Essence Service.

The Essence Service provides support, advice and activities for people who in the early stages of dementia, which is marked by symptoms including memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning.
“Essence is essentially the first port of call for support once you – or a loved one – has had a dementia diagnosis. It’s specifically for people in Sunderland, and we offer advice and information, as well as more practical support.

“The Essence Service is really about taking the fear out of a dementia diagnosis. Often, when we picture someone who has the condition, we imagine a person who is in the advanced stages of dementia – we picture it at its worse. The reality is that hundreds of people in Sunderland are living normal lives with the condition – and with the right support, we can ensure that the essence of that person remains intact for as long as possible,” says Mr Patchett.

Through the Essence Service, which is completely free to access, people living with dementia can learn more about the condition, understand what support is out there for them, and take part in sessions that are specifically designed to stimulate the brain and slow the advancement of the condition.

It’s not only the person living with the condition that can benefit from Essence though.

“The Sunderland Carers’ Centre is a vital strand of the service,” says Graham Burt, chief executive of the charity, which is based in Thompson Park, Sunderland

“The emotional strain a dementia diagnosis can put on carers can weigh very heavy – as well as the practical pressure of supporting that person to live a full and normal life.

“We recognize the fear that comes with a diagnosis for the family and support network, and we provide information, advice and support – if they need it, to help navigate the dementia carer pathway. We can advise people on things they can do to help someone living with the early stages of dementia – things they need to prepare for, and the best sources of help to access practical support, like housing adaptations and information about benefit entitlements, that can make all of the difference for the person and their family. Most importantly through our Understanding Dementia Resource sessions for carers we enable carers to share coping strategies that will help them in their caring role”

The service can be accessed directly by the public, by calling a number or visiting The Essence Service, Age UK Sunderland or the Carers’ Centre.

“It’s critical that we support carers as well as those living with the condition, and that’s what we aim to do. By working closely with Age UK Sunderland – who manage The Essence Service – we are able to look after everyone’s needs and make sure that a dementia diagnosis is not the elephant in the room, but something they all understand and learn to manage effectively.”

As well as community support, Sunderland is taking a lead when it comes to housing for people with dementia. Sunderland City Council has formed partnerships that have led to nine extra care schemes being developed in the city, two of which have been specifically designed to cater for people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Councillor Graeme Miller, portfolio holder for Health, Housing and Adult Services, said that the efforts of the council to develop future-proof housing for older people, meant that the city was ahead of the game in providing support for those living with dementia.

Cllr Miller said: “Sunderland is home to an ageing population, and we know that one in six people over the age of 80 will get dementia, so it is vital that we put in place the right support to meet their needs. For people living with the condition, the home they may once have lived in with their family can become a challenging and even dangerous environment, where they can easily come to harm.

“Having the right care and support around them, and even things like the aesthetics of the room, can have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing of people living with dementia, so a great deal of time and effort goes into creating schemes that are absolutely fit for that purpose. We know that, by doing the work up front, we will have provision that is able to support older people in our communities for years to come.”

One of the schemes that has been developed, thanks to a partnership between Sunderland City Council, Inclusion Housing and Housing & Care 21, is Seafarers Way. Based in the East End, Seafarers Way was opened in September 2014 and provides 38 one and two bedroom apartments for rent. It is open to single residents, as well as couples who are living with dementia, and also welcomes pets, which can be a source of comfort to people living with the condition.

As well as social care, the city’s 51 GP practices across Sunderland have been taking part in a two-year scheme to help improve the lives of people with dementia. Each practice has received Dementia Friends training, with staff trained to spot changes in patients which could lead to early diagnosis, while funding has been allocated to help with physical changes to ensure dementia patients are more comfortable within the practice environment. Additionally, a development in the pipeline is dementia training for care home staff.

NHS Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) Clinical Chair and local GP Dr Ian Pattison said: “We appreciate that a diagnosis of dementia can be extremely difficult for patients and their families but we are doing everything we can to help make the situation more bearable.

“Early diagnosis is key to maximising quality of life, planning for the future and accessing guidance and support.”

The Essence Service, which is located at The Sir Thomas Allen Centre, near to Morrisons at Doxford Park, is a vital element to ensure that people and their carers receive the right support in the early stages of their dementia diagnosis, helping to keep people connected, independent and still part of their local community for as long as possible.

To find out more call 0191 522 1310, email essenceservice@ageuksunderland.org.uk or drop in the Essence Service centre, at the Sir Thomas Allen Centre, Mill Hill Road, Doxford Park, Sunderland, SR3 2ND.

Or to read the full Public Health England report on dementia in England, visit http://fingertips.phe.org.uk/profile-group/mental-health/profile/dementia.

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