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3rd Sector Care Awards
Claire Thomas – Community Engagement

Claire Thomas from Alzheimer’s Support won the Community Engagement Award in the 3rd Sector Care Awards 2017 for her dedication to supporting communities to become more dementia friendly.

One of my favourite photographs is a picture of an older man helping do up the zip on a small child’s coat. The small child is a pupil at Holbrook Primary School in Trowbridge, and the gentleman is a member at Alzheimer’s Support’s Mill Street Day Club, also in Trowbridge, and has dementia. The photograph to me sums up what community engagement is all about – bringing people together to achieve something good.

At Alzheimer’s Support we work to enable people in Wiltshire to live well with dementia and to maintain as much independence and control over their lives as possible. We believe that people with dementia are valued members of their communities, and that the feeling of being valued can come in many different ways, from being part of a group of friends, to being able to help a child do up their coat.

Raising awareness

Living well with dementia requires the support and understanding of the community within which people live. But how are people to understand dementia if no one tells them? This is the issue that the Dementia Aware Project in Wiltshire was set up to address. Alzheimer’s Support (which works solely in Wiltshire), Alzheimer’s Society and Wiltshire Council worked together to make Wiltshire communities more dementia friendly, using Dementia Friends Information Sessions as the main way of doing this. The project ran for two years, and over 5,600 people attended Dementia Friends Information Sessions. In addition, most areas of Wiltshire have small groups of people within them working to make their communities more dementia friendly.

It was particularly helpful to have Wiltshire Council as a partner in the project. Wiltshire is divided into eighteen area boards – which are a level of local government below Wiltshire Council. Each has a Community Engagement Manager who had responsibility for supporting their area to become dementia friendly. I worked closely with these staff members to draw in members of their communities who had an interest in and desire to do this. Each area was different, and some were more enthusiastic than others, but all of them had some dementia friendly activities going on by the end of the project. Without the top-down support of Wiltshire Council I believe this would have taken a lot longer.

The Dementia Friends sessions were an invaluable way of encouraging people to become more dementia friendly because at the end of each session people are challenged to do one dementia friendly action. During the course of the project we learned that simply running Dementia Friends sessions, publicising them and hoping people would turn up often resulted with only one or two attendees. Instead we focused on running sessions for groups, and where possible opened these up to the general public. I ran sessions for businesses, including domiciliary care providers and care homes, health centre staff, churches, clubs, charities and schools. I offered the sessions to many organisations and worked with the large number of people who were interested, rather than worrying about those who were not.

My Dementia Friends online dashboard currently says that I have made 2,027 Dementia Friends. This means that I have spoken, face-to-face, with 2,027 people and told them what dementia is, how it affects people and the simple actions that anyone can take to support people living with dementia and make our communities more dementia friendly. I do this through my work for Alzheimer’s Support, but anyone can do the free day-long induction that Dementia Friends regularly provides, become a Dementia Friends Champion and do the same.

Most people respond enthusiastically to a Dementia Friends session, although the results may not be immediately visible. I was walking down the street in the town where I live when I was stopped by a man who had attended a session I had run some time before. He explained that he was from a local church, and, following my session they had encouraged two older men they knew with dementia to come to the church’s men’s group. These men were now coming regularly and were once again part of their community and valued members of a group.

Encouraging communities

A large part of the Dementia Aware Project involved getting out into communities, talking to people and getting to know who was doing what. Our aim was not to set up more professionally-run community groups, but to encourage communities themselves to respond to the needs identified in their particular area.

An example of this was a local church which had recently undergone a major refurbishment and wanted to open up the church building to isolated people in the community, including people with dementia. I brought together representatives of the church, the local health centre and the local council to discuss the opportunity. As a result, a small grant was made by the local council to support the church, health centre and Alzheimer’s Support to work together for six months to set up a monthly café for people at risk of isolation. After this period the church felt confident enough to continue running the café without additional support, and it is still running.

My role was, through my work in the community, to recognise such opportunities when they arose and to make the most of them, and I was honoured to win the Community Engagement Award at the 2017 3rd Sector Care Awards.

Future ambitions

The Dementia Aware Project was funded for two years and that funding is now finished. However, Alzheimer’s Support continues to engage with communities in Wiltshire, and the award has helped to raise the profile of our work. Working in one county, we are able to focus our services on the needs of our local communities and the people with dementia and carers within them. We currently have 40 community groups of various sorts running regularly across the whole of Wiltshire.

My focus is now on businesses and schools in Wiltshire – raising awareness of dementia and encouraging them to support people with dementia in their communities. I love being able to work so locally and to support people of all ages to make a difference where they live. And it is this that I find engages people most – knowing that they are helping their neighbours, relatives, friends and colleagues, and possibly even making sure that good services are available should they themselves have need of them in the future.

Claire Thomas is Special Projects Coordinator at Alzheimer’s Support in Wiltshire. Email: clairet@alzheimerswiltshire.org.uk Twitter: @AlzheimersSupp

The Markel 3rd Sector Care Awards is run specifically for the voluntary care and support sector. Book your ticket today to hear the inspiring stories and innovative work of this year’s nominees. Tables and sponsorship opportunities are also available on the 3rd Sector Care Awards website.

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