A Mind for Dementia

When Dr Kate Irving of DCU’s School of Nursing and Human Sciences was working as a nurse in the 1990s, she had an experience that would change her outlook on dementia care. The moment happened when working on a ward one night when an elderly patient hit her over the head.

After the shock subsided, Dr Irving saw the situation for what it was – a dementia patient in need of a different level of care. “It was a bottle of Robinson’s orange, the heavy, glass kind, and I needed stitches for the wound,” she said. “Initially I was quite angry, but when I got back to the ward it dawned on me that this patient, who had dementia, was let down by the entire system, and he was in a ward that was not designed for him. In fact, the whole setup was anti-dementia. I didn’t want to be part of the care system that led to that, so I decided to go and do something about it.” That experience inspired Dr Irving to try and make a real difference.

Pursuing an academic career, she turned her expertise to projects focused on promoting brain health and a more dementia-friendly society. One of these was the FP-7-funded INMINDD which has looked at how people can take steps to help delay the onset of dementia through lifestyle choices in middle age. “There are no guarantees, but research suggests that being physically and socially active and looking after heart health in middle age is linked to a later onset of dementia,” she said. “INMINDD developed an online tool for people to assess what they needed to change and support them in doing that. The project showed us there is low awareness about the links between lifestyle and dementia, and that online education works moderately well for a subset of people. It is an incremental step, and the findings really drove home to me that we need a lot of different approaches to raise awareness and action about dementia.

” A major goal of Dr Irving’s work is to build our skills as a society to support people who have dementia. “Our Dementia Elevator programme is about enabling people to live well with dementia. A big part of this is providing training and education and empowerment programs for those who encounter people with dementia in their work,” she added. The training programmes have already changed behaviours, but so too has Dr Irving’s research team which now includes several people with dementia. “It is really important that people with dementia are involved, because research about dementia can only be enriched by the voices of people with the condition,” she said. “It has been a steep learning curve for me, and I have needed to think about phrasing and make sure I am asking for things in a way that is helpful and understandable.”

“The whole of dementia is too hard to take on at once, but you can make small changes. Encouraging people to think about their own brain health and how they can be more mindful when dealing with a person with dementia, and these small changes can help to widen awareness and make our society more inclusive for people with dementia.” For more information on the School of Nursing and Human Sciences, visit www.dcu.ie/snpch