Launched in 2011, Living Well with Dementia was a Design Challenge run in partnership with the Department of Health to improve the lives of those affected by dementia. One of the five innovative solutions created through the challenge, Dementia Dog is a service providing assistance dogs to people with dementia, helping them lead more fulfilled, independent and stress-free lives.
A sense of routine can often break down for people with dementia. Disruptions can have a spiralling effect: forgetting to eat, drink, sleep or take medication can increase disorientation, create confusion and heighten anxiety about the outside world. All of this increases isolation and puts a huge burden on carers too.
Dogs can be taught to support existing patterns of waking, sleeping and eating for people with dementia. Through responding to sound alerts, they can also help with regular hydration, medication and toilet use. In the early stages, reminders may not be necessary, but if they begin immediately it will mean the routine is established when the need arises. Dogs can also be trained to provide orientation outside the home.
The potential social and emotional benefits are huge. Dogs are naturally loving presences and extensive anecdotal evidence suggests they can have a transformative effect on people with dementia, helping them stay alert and even-tempered. Outside the home, dogs can be great ice-breakers, initiating conversations in which memory need not be a factor. Just by being able to get out more, people with dementia who have a trained dog can widen their circle of support. If they do reach a point where they are rarely going out of the house, the dogs provide much needed companionship.
The burden on carers can be hugely relieved, leading to better quality of care. The dog can provide an anchor for the person with dementia while out with the carer, leaving the carer free to get on with tasks such as shopping. Training involves the dog, the carer and the person with dementia so that all three can operate as a team.
The service has caught the media’s attention, resulting in significant column inches and a BBC Scotland documentary. This helped to attract additional investment needed to fund the pilot phase that put the theory into practice. Dementia Dog is now live with three dogs active, and the service is at work on developing a model for national roll-out.