The care home population is ageing and, particularly in services that support older people, the vast majority of residents will have some form of sensory impairment. It is true that sensory impairments often get more severe with age, but this should not be used as an excuse not to offer support or equipment that will help people to live well with a sensory impairment and minimise the impact that it has on their daily life.
All too often, the notion of sensory loss is seen to be either a hearing or a sight difficulty. Whilst these sorts of impairments make up the vast majority of conditions that affect people living in care, we must not forget that there are also people whose tastes may have changed due to medical conditions, such as strokes or dementia, and this can also affect people’s ability to smell. I wanted to raise this issue because I think we should understand that the quality of our lives is so dependent on how all our senses work together and the loss or reduced capacity in any of these areas, either singularly or cumulatively, can have a big impact on the quality of our lives.
In relation to smell and taste, this raises real issues for catering staff, who need to make food appealing and attractive to palates that may have changed, or senses such as smell, that may have diminished. The trick here is to work with residents and to find out what really ensures that food is appetising for them. Particularly for people living with dementia, food can often be very important in rekindling memories and this can be part of an approach to reminiscence that will help them to maintain cognitive function and gain a feeling of well-being from the revisiting of memories.
The issue of supporting people who have either hearing or sight loss is vital to maintaining health and well-being, as well as to delivering a higher quality of life. We all rely so heavily upon our sight and hearing to ensure that we stay safe and are able to live a happy and fulfilled life. If you lose your sight it may be difficult to get around the home and staff, visitors and other residents need to understand how important it is to maintain the constancy of the physical environment, so that people know where furniture is located and are able to find ways to navigate round their home. There are also a range of aids and adaptations that can help people to maintain their independence.
Similarly with hearing loss, there are many products and strategies that will help people maintain their independence and maximise their potential to hear.
What gives me great confidence that things are getting better, is the work done by so many dedicated charities and care home staff who try their level-best to ensure that a person’s disability does not become a barrier to inclusion, engagement and quality-of-life.
The Royal Association for Deaf People (RAD) has an excellent accreditation scheme for care homes and I was privileged to be present at Marlborough Court care home in Thamesmead, when they became the first care home to be awarded the accreditation for this scheme. Action on Hearing Loss, The British Deaf Association and the Royal Association for Deaf People are all very useful sources of information and advice for care homes trying to ensure that their services meet the needs of somebody with a sensory impairment. I was so impressed to see, on a visit to an Orchard care home in Leeds, the way in which these excellent charities were working together with the care home to improve the residents quality of life and minimise the impact of their sensory loss.
There are also some fantastic resources for people who are losing, or have lost their sight, and the Royal National Institute for Blind People, Sense, Deafblind UK, Action for Blind People and many other charities provide excellent advice and support.
Sensory impairments will affect many of us, either now or in the future, and it is our duty as care providers to do all that we can to ensure that care services are accessible and meet the needs of people with sensory impairments. This is not only something we should strive for because it is desirable, but it is something we must address because it will affect so many people living in care services, both now and in the times ahead.
Professor Martin Green