Changing the world from a Suffolk primary school: Dr Rebecca Poz works with school children to help support dementia patients
- Credit: Gregg Brown
When I ask Dr Rebecca Poz what her ultimate aim is in life, she laughs and says: ‘World peace?’
But arguably her true ambition is as big: a desire to remove the stigma around dementia ‘so that people can carry on living their lives the way they have always done, with access to the things they love and the care and understanding they need to remain fully welcomed by society.’
For Rebecca, a clinical psychologist and a clinical neuro- psychologist for the Norfolk and Suffolk Foundation Trust, based in Bury St Edmunds, this begins with education. Thus, she recently visited Great Barton primary school near Bury to give a 90 minute lesson to year 6 pupils about dementia, using Key Stage Two resources provided by the Alzheimer’s Society.
“It maybe the first time the resources have been used,” Rebecca said. “Certainly when I called the Alzheimer’s Society to tell them how it had gone, they said it was the first feedback they’d had on the sessions.”
The children’s response was, she says, ‘fantastic.’
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“It was a long lesson, a mixture of providing info, showing a video and various active tasks but the children were fully engaged throughout. They just really seemed to ‘get it’.’
One task involved a pupil giving the ‘wrong’ instructions to another child who was simulating ‘getting dressed’ into a onesie.
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“The idea was to show how the messages to the brain can be interrupted, so she would tell him to put his arm in the wrong hole for example, or the hood over the face instead of the back of the head.
“Of course he got into a big muddle, showing that this is what can happen to someone with dementia.
“The children considered how it would feel if this happened every time you got dressed and the compassion they demonstrated was on a par with what I would expect from the adults I normally lecture to.”
She added: “I don’t think we give younger children enough credit really for the levels of empathy they can show towards others and their ability to understand how other people might be feeling.”
Rebecca sees the project as a step towards building a ‘more dementia friendly society’, helping pupils to understand what can happen to a person with dementia and how they can help make that person feel better.
Rebecca said the children weren’t hampered by social embarrassment. ‘Mainly, they were just curious, full of questions and keen to help.’
Not all of their questions could be answered: “One girl asked if Alzheimer’s is inside all of us and if something sets it off,” said Rebecca. “I had to explain that we don’t actually know the answer to this, but it prompted a discussion about reducing the likelihood that you will develop dementia, by not smoking and drinking, for example, by eating healthily and looking after your heart...things they had already studied in class.”
The sessions are PSHE-approved (for the National Curriculum) and Rebecca hopes, in time, that teachers will begin to build them into their own lessons.
Since the session, Rebecca says she has heard that some of the children went home and discussed the project with their parents.“One girl hadn’t understood that dementia and Alzheimer’s were the same, so she had discussed that at home.”
Rebecca hopes to take the project out to other schools - she will visit Thurston Community College in the future and is also planning a session at the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds to help staff there to support people with dementia to enjoy going to the theatre, just as they have always done.
A colleague, David Gibbons, had previously prepared sessions for older children about dementia but this is the first time children of this age have been involved.
Rebecca said she felt hugely encouraged by their response.
“Dementia isn’t something to be feared and people with dementia need to feel included by society. They need to have people around them to say, ‘Are you OK?”
“If children of 10 and 11 can take that on board and it is meaningful to them than it makes me feel very hopeful,” she said.