Dementia: Michelle Harris on a mission to change care offered to sufferers


Michelle Harris is making changes within the dementia sector so those suffering from the disease are put first, and encouraged to integrate into society as easily with people with disabilities. Picture: Andrew Ritchie
Michelle Harris is making changes within the dementia sector so those suffering from the disease are put first, and encouraged to integrate into society as easily with people with disabilities. Picture: Andrew Ritchie

SINCE achieving a master’s degree in dementia care, Michelle Harris has been driven towards improving the care and lives of people living with dementia.

Throughout her studies she discovered care offered to people with dementia was neither holistic, nor engaging for them, encouraging her to develop a model that kept the person dealing with the disease in the front of mind.

“I realised everything we were doing was causing people despair, we weren’t connecting with them,” she said.

The concept of patient-centred care became a driver for Ms Harris, who sees the care style as the future of dementia.

“Waiting until it’s too late is a shame because you are denying that person from having a voice… I strongly believe that it’s about living with dementia not dying with dementia and we’re all going to get there eventually and maybe we should all have that (will) no matter what age,” she said.

Reducing the stigma associated to dementia, often caused by fear or mourning over the perceived loss of a loved one, is an important first step.

“A lot of research about dementia says when you meet someone with dementia, you meet one person with dementia because they are the same person but now they just see the world a bit differently,” Ms Harris said.

“Living with memory loss can be a barrier to staying connected to your family and friends, it challenges relationships and friendships. It can also challenge the persons own sense of identity, autonomy and security.”

Ms Harris said the future of dementia treatment must respect the rights of the person and adhere to their requests ideally written as living wills early after diagnosis.

“We promote that knowledge is power and if (in early diagnosis) you put an advanced care directive, you can actually give people the strength to know that what they want will come to fruition when they can no longer choose for themselves,” she said.

“I do believe that advanced planning is something that is nationally starting to take force and people are starting to take control of their futures.”

Ms Harris said a shift in public policy was also necessary, to establish safe places for people with dementia, similar to a disabled sign.

“We need to be spending more time on preventing dementia and supporting our communities to be more dementia friendly and inclusive,” she said.

However, it is important to improve the quality of life for people with the disease.

“Talking to people and engaging with them spiritually… people often think that’s around church but it can be anything to anybody,” she said.

“You could be at the end stages of dementia in a chair not being able to say what you want but you can still engage in therapy with touch, music and smell.

“Sometimes people only get touched when they are doing something like having a shower, eating or having a drink, but something like a hand massage and touching a pet is meaningful engagement and I’d like to see more of that.

“Sitting around and staring in God’s waiting room is not my idea of best practice dementia care, but if you are spiritually connecting with people through therapy then its better.”

Bethanie Dementia Consultant Michelle Harris, the theme for the series titled Staying Connected – Living with Memory Loss.

The seminars outline a pathway toward creating a more inclusive society that values people whose cognition is different, aiming to reduce the stigma and myths about memory loss.

The seminars also provide information and access to a referral or additional resources which help people living with memory loss to stay connected, promoting their wellbeing, inclusiveness and quality of life.

Seminars will be held at the following locations, free to the public but bookings are essential.

� Bethanie Beachside Lifestyle Village: 2-4pm, Friday 29 July

� Bethanie Waters Lifestyle Village: 2-4pm, Friday 30 September

� Bethanie Dalyellup: 11.30am-12.30pm, Friday 25 November

For further information on the Seminars or to book your place please contact Bethanie on 131 151.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a generic term indicating a loss of intellectual functions including memory, significant deterioration in the ability to carry out day-to-day activities known as cognition, and often changes in social behaviour.

Dementia is classed as the biggest health/social challenge facing the developed world and in Australia it is the second leading cause of death.

By 2050, more than one million Australians are predicted to develop the cognitive disability.

The disease begins in the human brain 20 years before the first symptom appears.

According to dementia consultant Ms Harris now is the time to seize the moment and shift dementia care to person-centred care and combating the disease.

Signs that someone might need a bit of extra help, either around the home to stay living independently or maybe moving somewhere where they can get more support?

Remember every case is unique: