My passion about dementia research: Making a difference
For me, it was 46 years ago that it all began. I had just finished my degree in Experimental Psychology and having been accepted onto a clinical psychology training course, it seemed like a good idea to seek a summer job at the local mental hospital. I started immediately as a nursing assistant on a ‘psychogeriatric’ ward, where, as was typical of that time, living conditions were not good; patients slept in large dormitories, beds lined up close together, no personal possessions, shared clothing, little privacy and few choices about how to spend the day. I was responsible (without any prior training) for helping 30 or so women, all in permanent hospital care for dementia, with personal care. This was a completely new experience for me, and at first it seemed way beyond my capabilities. But day by day, I came to get to know these patients as individual people, with distinct needs and preferences.
Purely by chance, this ward was part of a bigger action research project to transform this 19th century ‘lunatic asylum’ into a modern therapeutic community, and with my background in psychology I was able to help the staff team analyse data they had collected on how they spent their time. They always felt too busy to spend time chatting with the patients or to engage in activities, but the data showed that by re-organising the ward routine, allowing more flexibility and having a less task-oriented approach, opportunities could be found. This became the basis of a change programme on the ward, with the staff team taking forward a number of initiatives. The inspiration for me in that brief period working on the ward was all about ‘making a difference’, both at an individual level, in interactions and relationships with people with dementia, and at a ward level, where relatively simple changes could make a big difference to life for patients and staff. People said nothing could be done, but my experience was that there was hope, even in the most challenging situations.
This has remained with me ever since. From that moment on I knew I was going to be working with older people and people with dementia. Although there were no specific training placements in this field at the time, my research project for my clinical psychology training focused on incontinence in a similar huge psychiatric hospital with people with dementia and on qualifying I began work as an NHS clinical psychologist in an old age psychiatry unit, where I was free to carry out research as part of my role. All these years later, I have retired, no longer working as a clinician, and am only peripherally involved in research, but I take heart from the amazing network of colleagues – researchers, clinicians, carers and, now, people living with dementia – who share this drive to make a real difference to the lives of all those affected by dementia.
Bob Woods – Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology of Older People
Bangor University, Wales, UK