This week saw the shocking news that dementia is now the leading cause of death in England and Wales, beating heart disease and making 11.6% of all deaths attributed to the condition. Experts say that these statistics are largely due to the fact that people are living longer and dementia detection rates improving.
Studies are also highlighting the fact that people with learning disabilities are more likely to develop a dementia than other groups. Around 1 in 5 people with an learning disabilities over the age of 65 are expected to get the disease but are also more likely to develop it at an earlier age. Symptoms are often overlooked such as poor memory or declining communication skills, as these problems can be associated with the existing disability.
People living with Down’s syndrome are at a greater risk of getting the disease. Currently around 3 in 10 of people in this group will develop dementia in their 50s with statistics increasing to 5 in 10 in those over 60. This seems to be linked to the extra chromosome 21 that people with Down’s syndrome carry in their genes, this particular chromosome bearing the amyloid gene that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.
In order to diagnose correctly the onset of a dementia, particularly in those with Down’s syndrome, it is advisable to do a complete health check of the person through their G.P. This can be used as a root source of information to judge any future changes or deterioration against. Any later assessment is ideally done by a group of professionals who specialise in learning disabilities and will be able to separate symptoms of dementia from those of the existing condition.
There are many practical ways to help people with a learning disability with (or without) a dementia. If speech starts to deteriorate, a Communication Board showing symbols can be used to help bridge the gap, likewise a Date and Weather Board can help to visually show current daily information. Pictorial signs on doors can also be helpful for navigation around the house or care home and keeping to a routine can become less stressful for all concerned.
Life Story Books are an invaluable source of information that can be enjoyable for the person to interact with. Try to insert memorable photographs and keepsakes that will trigger reminiscence and stimulate conversation, if possible. Music is also helpful to trigger happy memories – CDs such as 100 Party Favourites list a wide range of well-loved songs that serve as a reminder of family parties etc. Even if speech is limited, a person with a dementia can often enjoy humming along to a favourite song.
There are many games and pastimes that are ideal for anyone with a learning disability, requiring little preparation but that will help encourage participation:
Fun to stack up the tins, then throw your bean bags and try to knock down as many as you can. Great for upper body movement and can be played sitting or standing.
Lovely wide net that allows for people of all abilities to score. Can be used for seated or standing play.
Silly but great fun! Swat the balloons to the next person (or try to keep the balloon up in the air on your own). Seated or standing, this will tone up upper bodies (as well as lungs with the laughter).
Bingo with a difference - play the authentic animal sounds (can also use large flip chart images) and place your tactile wooden marker on the animal. Great for anyone who has difficulty locating and remembering numbers.
Played in a similar way to dominoes, can you make your ‘rope’ the longest and score the most points? Brightly coloured chunky cards that are easy to grip.
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