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Wendy Mitchell blogs about a new Design School for people with dementia

Tuesday 13 March 2018

Wendy Mitchell, author of Sunday Times Bestseller book “Somebody I Used to Know” (2018), was diagnosed with Early-onset Alzheimer’s dementia in 2014, at age 58. She has kindly shared this blog post with us, about attending a Design School for People with Dementia in Birmingham, UK on 13 March 2018:

So yesterday saw me heading to Birmingham for an overnight stay. I’d actually snuck this one in as Tuesday was supposed to be a day of snuggling but I couldn’t resist the opportunity, and why? Well I would be seeing my dear friend Agnes Houston.

Agnes was the first person with dementia I remember meeting when I was first diagnosed. It was at my very first event in York. I was in awe of Agnes and it was she who showed me how there was still so much living to be done. It had such an impact on me that I recount the meeting in my book. I saw her quite a few times after that but don’t think I’ve seen her for ages, so when she emailed me about this event in Birmingham I had to fit it in somehow…

I was heading to Birmingham International for a Dementia Design school organised by Dr Julie Christie, from Dementia Centre, Hammond Care. They’d sorted out my travel and someone was going to meet me at the station.

Dawn was meeting me at Birmingham International but in the meantime I had to fight my way out of the train at Birmingham onto a platform that was heaving……..then heard someone say it was Cheltenham races today...but luckily there was a nice guard who told me where to get my final train and showed me to the lift.

Dawn was there ready and waiting for me and we made our way to the hotel to be met by the sight of Nigel, followed by Agnes who had brought me Yorkshire tea!!, Tommy and Joyce and Paul from Liverpool soon joined the party. Mary Marshall was also there (social worker) along with a new playmate, Kath from Ireland. Dr Julie Christie and Colm Cunningham, Director of Hammonds Care Dementia Centre had flown over from Australia…

Once everyone had arrived and after a cuppa Agnes started off by welcoming us.

Mary then went onto the main aim of the day – Introduction to design and why it matters…[she] showed slides of what she teaches professionals for us to chip in – it focuses on older people – most of the time we don’t think about the design of buildings until things go wrong…confusion between ageing impairments and good design for people with dementia. Most people with dementia are old and dementia adds to the physical and sensory challenges that come with age.

The biggest revelation was around the use of air fresheners! Don’t use air fresheners as they contain harmful agents for people with breathing difficulties – open windows. The automatic air fresheners provide lung problems. Often windows won’t open in hospitals and care home but if the rooms in care homes and hospital are continually hot, which they often are, it can lead to dehydration…Gardens are the most underused area of care homes – as it’s too much hassle. Research has shown the main reasons care staff for not allowing people with dementia to go out is the weather…

Mary talk[ed] about design of everyday areas – as the hours passed some key themes kept emerging…

Firstly, we need to join forces with the other disability groups to make places accessible to many. British standards Institute are being re-written in the next 4 years and we must make it include cognitive issues as it currently deals with wheelchair access and visual impairment. The British standard is built into regulations so now is prime time to influence for building regulations. We don’t want new building that still aren’t right when built.

Most cities have ‘disability access panels’ – it’s mainly about wheelchairs and vision impairment – we have to get cognitive and perceptual issues considered. They are a powerful group. Many disabilities rights group are wary of people with dementia… we have to get ourselves on those panels, as they believe we don’t have the ability. It’s joining forces with other disability rights groups……..many disability groups are established and may not want to see us piggybacking onto their organisation. But our role is to show them the benefit of having us connected.

Secondly, we need to get Architectural schools to allow us to speak at their conferences. We need disability not to be seen as a burden but celebrating what we can do and be enabled to do that and design can be the starting point. A new bunch of students to influence…

The third action could be to focus on one major hotel change that we frequently use for conferences. If we change one hotel group in design that holds conferences…

“A group of like-minded people can change the world” – said Nigel…

Many people said to the Dementia Centre: “You can’t have a design school for people with dementia”

Well we had it today. We’ve redefined what we thought we were here for today as we’ve taken it into the Political and Rights arena.

NB: Ms Mitchell’s original blog post is longer than the text shown here, as we have cut some sections out, purely in the interest of space, but you can read the full blog post here:

To find out more about Ms Mitchell:

Read more in this article and visit DementiaCentre's homepage from April 2018 to find out about future dementia Design Schools.

Pictured: “Cuppa tea time…Nigel, Tommy, Agnes, Paul, Kathy, me and Joyce….”