Mixing the personal and the professional

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For most of us, having a family member diagnosed with dementia can be a daunting experience. Michelle Medway, however, is an exception. When her grandmother was diagnosed with the condition she felt more than prepared – thanks to her career at Barchester Healthcare. But more than this, she found the personal experience helped in her professional life too.

Michelle is a General Manager (RGN) at Barchester’s Alice Grange Care Home in Ipswich. “I always wanted to be a nurse,” she explains. “I spent a lot of my time dressing up and playing as one when I was little. From the beginning of my career, I worked in a hospice or end of life environment before moving into elderly care. Right from the beginning my gran Cecilia was always supportive of my choice of career.”

Cecilia was diagnosed with dementia several years ago and Michelle and her family have been helping to support her ever since. However, the fact that Michelle manages Alice Grange means she has a lot of experience and understanding of dementia to draw from.

Alice Grange has a strong reputation in dementia care. As well as having a dedicated Memory Lane Community, it was one of the homes selected to trial ‘10-60-06’: an innovative Barchester programme to enhance dementia care and make it more person centred.

“We work at a much slower pace with our Memory Lane residents,” Michelle explains. “The task-based culture that surrounds a traditional nursing role is reversed. All the necessary procedures still take place, but on the resident’s timescales, not ours. It helps them continue their journey with more dignity and greater control.”

So what is it like to look after a loved one with dementia?

“It’s still hard at times,” admits Michelle. “Some days I go straight from work to check on my Gran and I have to prepare myself emotionally. I have to enter into her world just like I enter into my residents’ worlds. This can mean celebrating my dad’s birthday nowhere near his birthday – or listening to the same stories over and over again as if they’re new.”

“One of the harder things to deal with is the mood swings that can come with dementia and that is where some of the Barchester techniques helped me. Cecilia is still living on her own and can be distressed when I visit. Using some of the talking techniques we use at Barchester helps to de-escalate the situation quickly.”

“It’s coming close to the time when I have to make a decision about her long-term care, and I’m finding that hard. She’s not just my gran, she’s my best friend, so it’s really hitting home. However, this experience has helped me in my professional work. I’m finding that I now have more empathy with the families of residents – about what they’re dealing with and how they are watching their loved ones change before their eyes. I understand what they’re going through and can offer support and comfort.”

It goes much further than empathy. Michelle has also driven some pioneering initiatives at Alice Grange: “To involve families more, we’ve started a dementia café in the home which has proved very successful. The Memory Lane residents and their families gather together and there is a variety of things we do. These can include specialist talks to help their families.

“One particular highlight was when one of our nurses got married and she came into the home in her wedding dress. We arranged flowers and the chef made a mini wedding cake.  It was amazing – we had lots of the wedding photographs of our residents, so we held a Guess Who competition. With dementia, reminiscing is a big part of what we do. The older memories are familiar and are a happy place for our residents."

“We hope to start inviting the community to our café mornings soon, to further spread the word about the importance of looking after those with dementia. Larger events such as World Alzheimer’s day on the 21st September will also help to promote all the support that can be offered in the community.”

Such experiences mean that – despite the challenges – Michelle is ultimately upbeat about the future. “I know I have an emotional journey ahead, making decisions for my gran and what’s best for her wellbeing. However, with my nursing background and Barchester experience, I know what I want her care to look like.”

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