Dementia volunteers wanted to ease fears of patients

From left: volunteer John Houghton, staff nurse Jackie Dixon and patient Stephen Prout.
From left: volunteer John Houghton, staff nurse Jackie Dixon and patient Stephen Prout.
Grace Hutton after the cut
Pictures by Ellie Pilmoor

Grace, from Cosham, says goodbye to hair in memory of mum while Leanne, from Gosport, did the same for cancer charities

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Hospital stays can be unsettling as patients have to deal with a change of environment as well as an illness or injury.

But for anyone suffering from dementia it is even more daunting, as the condition can cause unsettling feelings in your own home, let alone in an unfamiliar building.

That’s why Queen Alexandra Hospital, in Cosham, is looking for dementia volunteers to provide support for dementia patients in different wards.

It is a scheme backed by The News’ Take Care Together campaign, which aims to raise the awareness of dementia, increase the number of dementia friends and ensure no-one with dementia feels alone.

Gill Gould is head of nursing for surgery and cancer at QA, and is also leading the dementia volunteers initiative.

She says: ‘We want dementia volunteers on most of our wards to provide social support for people with dementia.

‘We know people with dementia who come into hospital generally have longer lengths of stay and often have worse outcomes.

‘There’s a whole range of reasons for that and one of the things we know is that it’s difficult for young people – who are fitter and healthier – a stay in hospital can be daunting.

‘But if you’re struggling to make sense of everything, then being in hospital can be worse for someone with dementia.

‘If you put someone with dementia in a hospital then it’s different and can be scary.

‘So it’s about having a companion in hospital that will help them make sense of things and therefore feel safe and secure.’

Portsmouth Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs QA, is hoping to train up volunteers who can support dementia patients in most wards.

Help can be given in a number of ways and can range from having a conversation, to making memory boxes with photographs inside.

Gill adds: ‘The volunteer could be just staying in the ward and having a conversation with the patient, providing a box of old photos of historic moments that can be discussed.

‘Or it could be playing cards and dominoes at the bedside, going for a wander around, or accompanying a person during their meals.

‘Eating at your bed isn’t pleasant, and having a companion makes it feel like more of a social meal.

‘We are ambitious with this and want volunteers in pretty much all wards except paediatrics and maternity.

‘We will start in the medicines for older people ward and take it from there.

‘People will be given training so they feel confident with dementia patients and get an understanding of the disease.

‘The News’ Take Care Together is a great campaign and is needed.

‘There’s still a lot of fear and trepidation of how to speak to people with dementia so I want to encourage people to get involved.

‘To help someone is one of the most satisfying things to do and you can go a long way at making a positive difference for someone with dementia.

‘The number of people who will have dementia will increase and so we all need to get on board and support the community we all live in.’

John Houghton, 57, of Falmouth Road, Paulsgrove, who is part-retired from Portsmouth City Council, has been volunteering since last September.

He says: ‘Everyone will have their own reason for volunteering – for me it was the fact that I wanted to give something back.

He says: ‘Eleven years ago my daughter Ruth was taken to QA’s A&E with a life-threatening brain haemorrhage.

‘Fortunately, she was seen very quickly, and given a scan, before being transferred to Southampton where she had a life-saving operation.’

Ruth has since made a recovery and earlier this year gave birth to twins, making John a grandfather for the first time.

John now volunteers for one day a week in the medicine for older people department.

‘I have always wanted to volunteer and I haven’t looked back since I began in September last year,’ he adds.

‘I will sit and talk to a lot of the patients who come in. Some of the elderly patients may not have many family members and may not get many visitors so it can make a real difference for them to have someone to talk to.

‘Sometimes I go for a walk with the patients. On ward G4 they have a memory lane and that’s often a nice way to spend time with patients.

‘You don’t have to spend hours and days at the hospital, just a few hours a week if that’s all you can spare.

‘Although the nursing staff help, they are also extremely busy and so a volunteer can make a real difference for a patient.

‘I really enjoy it, some patients have fascinating stories to tell, and I would say to anyone who is considering volunteering – just do it.’

And the scheme has also been backed by charity the Alzheimer’s Society.

Lucie Debenham, Alzheimer’s Society services manager for the Portsmouth area, says: ‘At Alzheimer’s Society we believe anything that can help improve a hospital stay for a person with dementia is a good thing. Supporting people to eat and drink, helping them move around and giving them somebody to talk to are small things that can have a huge impact.

‘While they can’t replace qualified staff, volunteers who are suitably trained and managed can support staff, families and carers to improve the lives of people with dementia while they are in hospital.’

To find out more or to sign up email gill.gould@porthosp.nhs.uk