Person in swimming pool with occupational therapist

People with young-onset dementia find out just how much they can do on regular leisure centre visits

A partnership in Essex helps people who have young-onset dementia to stay active and involved.

Whenever she went on holiday with her twin sister, Jackie would sit on the side of the pool, not daring to go for a dip. 

‘I was always too frightened of going under,’ she remembers. 

Now, thanks to a sporting initiative for people with young-onset dementia in Basildon, Essex, she’s found the courage to lower herself into the water for the first time, her smile radiating brightly. 

‘Everyone here is so encouraging. They’ve built my confidence. I told myself I was going to try – and if I can do it, anyone can.’ 

Maximise time 

This trip to the local leisure centre is part of a joint scheme run by two impressive organisations.

Peaceful Place is a much-loved day centre, providing support and activities for people with young-onset dementia. It works in partnership with Sport for Confidence, an organisation of occupational therapists finding ways to make exercise more accessible. 

‘We want to maximise the time that people with working-age dementia have to do what they want to do in their lives,’ says Charlotte Curran, CEO of Peaceful Place. 

‘The diagnosis of dementia is so often about what people can’t do. We want to help them see what they can still do.’ 

There’s another bonus. ‘Often they find their friends feel uncomfortable around them and disappear. Here they develop new friendships.’

A Love to Move session

In the morning a group from Peaceful Place piles onto minibuses to make its way to a ‘Love to Move’ exercise class. Here a carefully orchestrated session includes everything from warm-ups and stretches to pulse-racers and memory games, while ‘We Are Family’ and ‘Simply the Best’ help keep everyone motivated. 

Lyndsey Barrett, Senior Occupational Therapist, explains that many of the movements are included specifically to help with brain function, stimulating neural pathways. 

‘The exercises have meant some have relearnt how to use skills from the past, such as using cutlery.’ 

She says the Love to Move session was developed by the British Gymnastics Foundation to be used in care and residential homes. 

‘This is the first time it’s been developed for use in a mainstream leisure centre and the atmosphere here is a real benefit.’ 

As a group 

CEO Charlotte explains that even the process of putting on coats and getting onto the bus is an important part of the experience for her members. 

‘They’re doing all of this as a group, and it leads to a difference in their confidence and abilities. When they return from the leisure centre there is much chatter and excitement, and they are more alert. Families also report they are relaxed and happier when they return home.’ 

Liz Burton, the Sports Development Officer who works with Charlotte to build the partnership with Sport for Confidence, has witnessed how the members she supports follow each other’s lead, not the lead of the workers supporting them. 

As Gwen, one of the attendees says, ‘Everyone is so friendly. They were joining in with the sports, so I did too. The group pulls you in.’

People in swimming pool

Gwen’s keen to get into the pool that afternoon, as the group travels back to the leisure centre. 

‘We all have problems but coming here and going in the water you can forget some of that.’ 

Another member, Richard, explains he can no longer swim because one of his arms is damaged, but he still joins in, walking up and down in the water with one of the therapists. 

‘I was in the merchant navy, so I’m used to water,’ he explains. 

Transformation 

Occupational Therapist Lyndsey talks again about the transformation in those attending the classes. 

‘Some of the people needed to be gradually introduced to the activity over a period of weeks and took time to feel comfortable in a new environment.

‘The fear you could sense in them has gone. Now people have more speech, more movement, better concentration. They talk to reception confidently as they walk past, initiating conversation. It’s just fantastic. 

‘Occupational therapists can use sport as an amazing therapeutic tool. The possibility of change is vast.’ 

Lyndsey’s team of 24 works in leisure centres across Essex and parts of London, while universities are exploring how to share the relevance of what her team does further afield. 

The importance of being in a group couldn’t be clearer. 

‘Jackie was so scared at the beginning. Just look at her face now,’ says Lyndsey. 

‘It was wonderful to be able to go into the water,’ agrees Jackie. ‘I thought if I don’t go in, I’ll mess the day up for the others. Now I feel so proud. I can’t wait to go home and tell my family. 

‘Everyone should have a go. Take the first step. See what you can do.’ 

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