Charities join forces to support military dementia carers

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Armed Forces personnel caring for loved ones with dementia will receive life changing support thanks to a survey conducted by the RAF Association.

The largest survey of its kind by a national military charity has revealed the unique circumstances of military personnel battling to provide personal care for relatives from afar.

The research by the RAF Association, the charity that supports the RAF family’s wellbeing, shows there are increased pressures on carers serving in the military. This is due to often being deployed outside of their home area, sometimes overseas and at short notice.

In the past year more than 112,000 people working across all employment sectors have had to give up their job, with many retiring early because of their caring commitments.

Preventing a workplace crisis

The RAF Association is now working with the Alzheimer’s Society to develop solutions to help prevent a workplace crisis in the Armed Forces.

Director of welfare and policy at the Association, Rory O’Connor, says: “Apart from very limited data published through the MoD in 2017, no information was previously available to us that we could use to tailor key welfare services to personnel needs.

“We knew it was imperative to understand the characteristics of the people our charity serves, so we undertook our own survey of over 4,000 people – the largest charity survey of the RAF family ever conducted – during 2018.

“Analysis of the results showed that around 15% of respondents had an unpaid carer responsibility for someone with a health problem, with the most frequently cited condition being dementia.

“Of course, people who join the military understand that there will be challenges and sacrifices as part of their role, but life can change dramatically and beyond all recognition when an ageing parent is diagnosed with dementia.

“Suddenly, personnel working a long way from home can be faced with an impossible situation. Trying to co-ordinate or provide care from a distance, when you can’t be there in person, can be agonisingly frustrating.”

Support initiatives

Both charities now want to build on employer support by providing bespoke welfare services for carers, permission given by the RAF for flexible working is already helping tremendously.

Together with Alzheimer’s Society, the RAF Association is currently developing a raft of support initiatives based on interviews with personnel who have carer responsibilities.

Alzheimer’s Society innovation programme manager Simon Lord says: “Caring for a person living with dementia can affect people in different ways. Living or working in a different location to someone with dementia can be particularly challenging.

“Using an innovative approach, we have helped the RAF Association to develop ideas for solutions. It is extremely encouraging to see two of these solutions now being built and tested.”

A number of prototype initiatives will be tested by RAF personnel in the coming weeks, with the aim to role them out to the RAF as quickly as possible. It is hoped the initiatives will provide a framework for other charities to use to support carers serving in the Armed Forces.

Personal experience

Squadron Leader Richard Lewis is stationed at High Wycombe and has been involved in the research. Richard’s father died as a result of Alzheimer’s disease and his mother, Freda, was diagnosed four years ago.

Richard has served with the RAF for 16 years, he says: “I was actually considering leaving my job at one point because I was travelling long distances in order to take on my share of carer responsibilities alongside my sister.

“Fortunately, I was offered a more flexible working arrangement, so I have been able to stay with the RAF while supporting my mother.”

The knowledge that the RAF Association and Alzheimer’s Society are looking to support people in similar situations has been hugely encouraging for Richard.

The charity will be incredibly relying on research to tailor all of its services to beneficiaries’ needs explains Association general secretary, Nick Bunting: “In a fast-changing social landscape, it’s more important than ever to fully understand the needs of the people we serve.

“The issues we have already identified in relation to carers in the RAF will, I’m sure, be relevant to all three of the Armed Forces, so our work with Alzheimer’s Society could ultimately help many thousands of people for years to come.”

Lifeline

Flight Lieutenant Rosie Brooks also took part in the research. Her mother, Dawn, was diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s disease earlier this year. The strain of trying to care for her mother while serving in the RAF soon began taking its toll on Rosie.

“My whole life was flipped upside-down overnight,” recalls Rosie. “I found the social care system difficult to navigate, and I struggled to look after my Mum properly.

“While the RAF has helped a great deal by enabling me to work flexibly, it’s still frustrating to only be able to give my Mum a couple of days per week.”

The new carer-support mechanisms being trialled are specifically designed for military personnel and aim to provide a lifeline for those struggling with a care role or relative’s diagnosis.

By connecting to people with similar experiences and providing a safe space to share their stories, the RAF Association hope to help more military personnel in this situation.

The initiative’s testing phase will launch at the RAF Association’s inaugural national Research Symposium in London.

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