Bringing hope to balance media messages of decline and vulnerability in dementia
Professor Jane Oyebode looks at the gap between media reporting of dementia and the reality of the work being done to improve care and support.
Recently the BBC focused on not one but two dementia-related stories. One was headlined ‘The Video Game that is actually Dementia Research’ and reports on the finding that Sea Hero Quest analytics demonstrate that navigational ability declines with age. The other reported convergent findings from Age UK, a BBC investigation and the Alzheimer’s Society exposing the inadequacy of home care for older people in need.
These reports demonstrate the media’s raised consciousness of the place of dementia in our lives and the increased interest is welcome. At the same time, the reporting paints a picture of decline and vulnerability with little place for hopefulness. The work at the heart of both reports shows something of the problems faced by people living with dementia and their families, but the understanding can also take us towards positive change.
Harnessing benefits of technology
The video game, Sea Hero Quest, is a nautical adventure to save an old sailor's lost memories. Since the data analysis shows that our ability to find our way around declines with age, the report suggests the game could be used as an indicator for detecting dementia. It is very well established that change in navigational ability is one of the hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, and this is linked to the deterioration of a part of the brain called the hippocampus. However, as the researchers acknowledged, the current game is only the first step. Although Sea Hero Quest revealed changes in navigational ability across age groups, further research would be needed to make sure that it is actually sensitive to the changes that occur in Alzheimer’s disease, since these are likely to be different to age-related differences. Nonetheless, at the University of Bradford, we agree that technology can play a significant role in enabling understanding of dementia and we are looking at how we can use assistive technologies and games to learn more about how abilities, such as navigation and memory, are affected by dementia.
Earlier more timely diagnosis
So this type of game certainly seems to have potential to help us in our quest as researchers seek to develop tools that will help us to identify dementia at its earliest point. Earlier more timely diagnosis could mean earlier access to post-diagnostic support and herein lies a potentially positive point, since an earlier diagnosis has also been shown to mean people with dementia can live longer in their own homes. To do so in a state of wellbeing however necessitates adequate support services, and the second news report shows just how poor such support often is. The natural reaction is to sink into a sense of helplessness at the intransigence of the problem as these negative reports emerge.
Improving care skills
The purpose of applied research is to help society to solve problems, and dementia research can help us discover more effective ways to support family care, as in our Caregiving HOPE study, as well as better ways of equipping home carers to be able to understand and meet the needs of people with dementia. In the latter context the Health Education England and Skills for Care Dementia Core Skills and Knowledge Framework deserves to be more vigorously used to push for better training.
The University of Bradford received the coveted Queens Anniversary Prize for its work in training the workforce in person-centred care and, most recently, has developed online modules for the health and social care workforce, that enable staff to learn the skills they need to help people live well with dementia.
Jan Oyebode, Professor of Dementia Care