Dogs to help people with dementia

Dogs that make people with dementia more confident and a scent device to improve appetites are two designs that have won official approval


Dementia dogs can be trained to offer specialised support for people with dementia.

Five teams, £360,000 and 20 weeks to research and design a product or service to help people living with dementia. It sounds like something from The Healthcare Apprentice but the Design Council and Department of Health has unveiled five projects that they hope will significantly improve the lives of people with dementia and their carers. They calculate that the combined social return value of the project will be £500m.

Among the projects is dementia dog, a programme training specially selected assistance dogs to improve the confidence, wellbeing and support of people with dementia; online tool grouple, which helps families plan and share the care of a person with dementia; and ode, a plug-in device that emits aromas at set times to improve appetite and eating patterns.

Alongside the buddiband, and trading times, the projects were selected from more than 150 entries to be given funding and support from an expert panel including Gill Ayling, deputy director of older people and dementia at the Department of Health, and Joshua Hardie, the head of corporate responsibility at Tesco.

Each design improves the quality of life for people with dementia in different ways. The project is just one of many partnerships between the Department of Health and Design Council encouraging innovation in healthcare.

The launch of the designs follows another launch, the prime minister’s Challenge on Dementia last month. David Cameron has announced more money for research, awareness campaigns and staff training to help support people with the condition – currently 800,000 and a number which is steadily rising.

For one of the designers of grouple, the pilot has a more personal significance. Matthew Harrison had the idea after caring for his mother-in-law who has dementia.

“There was a gap for a way to help families and carers plan their routine and share information about caring for that person,” he said.

The grouple online diary enables people to upload scheduled visits, trips, and daily routine patterns, such as washes, to a network shared by everyone involved in the care of a person; Harrison and his team have already seen positive results.

“One lady regularly refused to have showers. When one relative heard about this, she realised it was because she hated having her hair wet. She then uploaded this information to grouple so that carers knew about this, and now she has a wash with the shower head taken off the rack so that she doesn’t get her hair wet and is much happier about bathing.”

The team hopes the network will be made available to people with dementia by care providers, and possibly even local authorities and the NHS.

Moving the projects from pilot studies to national implementation is the next big step for the teams – and one that some may find easier than others.

The ode, which emits citrus and cake scents at set times, has seen a 39% increase in better eating patterns for people with dementia, including weight gain and requests for meals. Lizzie Ostrom from the team that developed it explained that they are hoping the product will launch in the retail market, as well as through care providers. The device is small and home-friendly. Ostrom is hoping it will prove popular because the cost price would lower if more were sold.

The team behind dementia dog – which costs £25,000 to train each dog – is hoping to receive further support from dementia charities. Early indications are that there is a significant increase in quality of life for their owners, increasing confidence and support for people with dementia, and reducing care burdens for carers.

Jeni Lennox, project manager of dementia dog, said the team suspects the dogs can help keep people with dementia out of care for longer. “It would be great if they could be supplied in the future by health bodies,” she said.

Auditors estimate that the five projects could bring a combined return of more than £500m in social care savings through helping people access better nutrition, shared care and more physical activity.

Yet at a time when the NHS is looking to make £20bn in efficiency savings, the pilots will be watched with interest.

For, as Mat Hunter, chief design officer at the Design Council, points out: “There is just as much scope to improve experiences of services through innovation in healthcare, but trying to kickstart designs can be a particularly knotty issue.”

Perhaps this should be the prime minister’s dementia challenge.


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