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My friend with dementia

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Like all aspiring medical students, before coming to university I undertook a range of work experience and volunteering roles. These experiences give a taste of the career we are entering, provide evidence of our interest and commitment to said career and, of course, give us something to reflect on in interviews and personal statements. When I moved to Nottingham at the start of my first year, I was keen not to leave volunteering in the past. I therefore started to explore possible roles I could fit in around my studies. The university Students’ Union were helpful in showing me a range of volunteering opportunities and after short consideration, I decided to apply for the role of a ‘Side by Side’ volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Society. In truth, I had very little idea of what this would involve, however the opportunity to befriend and hopefully have a positive impact on someone living with dementia appealed to me. Up until this point, I’d had very little interaction with anyone living with the condition, so it was a big step into the dark and I was unsure what to expect.

After some standard introductory training for the role, I was taken to meet the individual I had been paired with. Mr J lives with his wife and received his diagnosis a fair few years before I met him. I was greeted with warmth and affability from the two of them on that first day. Two and a half years later, and with about 6 decades between our ages, I am good friends with Mr and Mrs J.

The side by side role is designed to be flexible around our availability and the service user’s preferences. In the early days of the role, we agreed I would see Mr and Mrs J weekly. Admittedly, at first the whole thing seemed a little stilted and I felt very much like a volunteer. His dementia already at an advanced stage, and having had limited exposure to dementia before, it took some months before I became accustomed to Mr J’s mannerisms and behaviours. I found it quite challenging finding things to talk about in those early days. We soon fell into a pleasant weekly routine though, usually involving a walk, a chat and a cup of tea at a café. As time went on, I found myself looking forward more and more to seeing Mr and Mrs J for the hour or two we’d spend together.

The role isn’t necessarily straightforward. I tend to find each week seeing Mr J almost like a reset. We find ourselves making similar conversation and I often hear similar anecdotes over again, yet we enjoy ourselves. I can tell he appreciates the company and does have some recognition of who I am each week. I also enjoy his company and being able to chat and have a break from studying. One of the more challenging aspects of the role I do find is on occasions where I need to take charge. This could be when we go the wrong way on walks or trying to order and pay for a coffee when there is a queue behind us. It took a while for me to get used to having to really guide and instruct Mr J in these situations.

The nature of the disease is progressive, and Mr J has obviously changed in the time I’ve known him. However, whilst the conversation may get more repetitive and we now find it not possible to go on walks, the friendship we have built remains and I hope it will continue into the future.

The work of the Alzheimer’s society is invaluable to those living with dementia and their families. If you want to opportunity to get involved with the society in any way, please visit their website: https://www.alzheimers.org.uk







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