Dementia, human rights and COVID-19

For the past six years, the Life Changes Trust has worked with people with dementia, unpaid carers, organisations and individuals to promote a whole life approach to dementia. A ‘whole life approach’ means looking more closely at all the different aspects of a person’s life that are important to them and doing everything that can be done to ensure these do not disappear with a diagnosis of dementia.

We have also advocated for a stronger human rights-based approach to dementia, that puts flesh on the legal and policy framework in Scotland in order to bring it to life. We are pushing the boundaries of the human rights-based approach so that people with dementia and unpaid carers can clearly see their rights being fulfilled in practice.

On 22 June 2020 we will publish a suite of documents entitled ‘Dementia: A Whole Life Approach’. This is a resource for anyone looking to learn more about dementia, human rights and community. It features the work of many organisations across Scotland and will, we trust, inspire more good work.

A key feature of our approach has been reframing discussion and language about dementia. We have emphasised the fact that people with dementia are citizens and rights holders, not just patients or service users. When the Life Changes Trust was first established, a medical model of dementia was still predominant and people were exploring more actively what a social model of dementia should look like.

In 2015, the Trust funded a series of workshops with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which became known as the VERDe Network. This network was fundamental to the development of the DEEP (Dementia Engagement and Empowerment Network) in the UK. As people with dementia met and spoke together they agreed that they wanted to live hopefully, be treated well and with respect regardless of age or ability, be able to give and receive support, and participate as fully as possible in their community.

Since then we have seen many of these hopes become reality for thousands of people living with dementia across Scotland. We commissioned independent evaluation of the impact of work funded by the Trust and will provide multiple opportunities over the next few years for people to share in that learning.

Then, in spring of this year, there was COVID-19.

The dementia ‘world’ has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and will continue to be so for a long time to come. On the one hand it has been astounding to see how quickly communities and many organisations have adapted to meet needs, nurture relationships and provide support in new ways.

On the other, some of the media narrative around people with dementia and COVID-19 threatens to take us back to a medical model that focuses on the condition more than the person, labelling people living with dementia (and older people) as ‘the vulnerable’ regardless of the state of their general health.

We understand why the government has restricted some of our human rights, e.g. right to liberty and right to respect for private and family life. It is clear that these are for reasons of public safety and to secure the right to life.

There is, however, some real apprehension about what the longer term will hold for people with dementia and unpaid carers as we work through the phases of easing lockdown restrictions. For some there is a fear that they will be labelled ‘the vulnerable’ and treated differently from the rest of the adult population.

What can we do to address some of these fears?

Be careful with the language we use

We have become familiar with phrases such as ‘protecting the vulnerable’. When we talk about ‘the vulnerable’ or ‘the elderly’ or ‘the disabled’ we are treading on dangerous ground because we risk stereotyping and making assumptions. This can be disempowering and may unwittingly create distinctions that are unhelpful: the vulnerable and the strong; the protected and the protector; those who sacrifice and those who are saved.

The reality is that, while there are some people who may be more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, any one of us could find ourselves in a position of vulnerability due to the virus. Therefore, it is better to use language that talks about the collective steps we are taking to protect our community from the impact of COVID-19. This language is more inclusive and frames the conversation in a different way. It makes COVID-19 a community matter rather than a problem for some more than others.

Restrict human rights only where absolutely necessary

There is a reason why the European Convention on Human Rights protects respect for private and family life. Personal identity, friendships and family can help anchor us. If our ability to access these aspects of life in a meaningful way is disrupted for too long – even for the best of reasons – our perception of self and our abilities can be severely affected.

It is encouraging to see that the Scottish Government has been using the phrase ‘physical distancing’ as opposed to ‘social distancing’. If anything, COVID-19 has increased the need for social connection and this has been borne out by the number of people who have contacted helplines run by organisations such as Age Scotland and Alzheimer Scotland.

One common theme in all of the work funded by the Life Changes Trust is the importance of relationships for people with dementia and unpaid carers. Relationships help restore lost identity, recognise shared humanity and create the conditions needed for a person to thrive. People with dementia and unpaid carers have a right to these relationships and as we move into the next phases of easing restrictions we must do four things. We must:

  1. listen to what people with dementia and carers are telling us about how they are feeling;
  2. listen to their suggestions and proposed solutions;
  3. after listening, fully consider and implement ways of working around necessary restrictions or requirements;
  4. challenge unnecessary restrictions or requirements.

Focus on enablement more than risk

Enablement and risk management are two sides of the same coin.  However, people with dementia and unpaid carers need us to focus more on enablement or, in some cases, reablement. We are seeing first hand the effects of lockdown on people with dementia who are usually out and about and involved in dementia activism. They are noticing the difference themselves and are concerned that their dementia is becoming worse. They are afraid that their confidence has gone and will not return.

An enabling rights-based approach says ‘you have a right to quality of life and deserve to do more than merely exist before, during and after COVID-19’. There are many initiatives across Scotland doing just that. They are helping people with dementia and carers navigate the restrictions of COVID-19 by teaching them to master online meeting spaces; providing telephone befriending and opportunities for peer support; sending (and receiving) handwritten letters; delivering arts and craft materials; chatting at a distance through the window; creating safe opportunities for singing or reminiscing or taking part in virtual walks; or starting each day with dementia-friendly exercises.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A number of project leaders that we have spoken with say that COVID-19 is increasing the variety of ways that people with dementia can be engaged and enabled. Their work is growing and developing rather than shrinking during lockdown. This is particularly the case where communities are pooling their resources and working together in new ways.

 We must make time to reflect and learn from COVID-19

COVID-19 is providing us with an opportunity to test how strong the roots of our human rights-based approach to dementia in Scotland actually are. After all, trees need strong winds to help them mature and grow stronger.

We have seen some excellent examples of rights-based practice in action, and also some examples of rights being set to one side in the name of expediency. This is a real opportunity for learning and growth, which occurs at a good time when the Scottish Government is looking at refreshing its National Dementia Strategy and a number of local dementia strategies are being drafted by Integration Joint Boards.

A number of the evaluation reports for Life Changes Trust funded projects will now also examine how projects, people with dementia and unpaid carers were affected by, and responded to, COVID-19.

As we all gather the valuable evidence we have and reflect upon it, we will be in a position to share learning and strengthen our human rights-based approach in Scotland for the future. It is unlikely we will have an opportunity like this again in our lifetime.

 

 

 

 

Anna Buchanan, CEO, Life Changes Trust

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