brain health programme

New Zealand’s rapidly ageing population is driving a burgeoning need for aged care, and a new brain health programme launched by Metlifecare is helping to lay the foundations for growth.

Estimates show that by 2051, over a quarter of New Zealand’s population will be aged 65 plus. Not only that, but within this group, the highest growth rate is expected to be within those aged 85 and over. Demand for aged care is on the rise – and the need for care homes and specialised dementia communities has never been greater.

But while most new retirement developments include a care offering, there are many older villages that don’t. How easy is it to integrate aged care and dementia care into an existing village? And to bring village residents on the journey?

According to Mary Stewart, Metlifecare’s Bay of Plenty Regional Clinical Manager, a lot of it comes down to education. She should know. Mary has not only opened numerous care homes but also played a pivotal role in the successful opening of Metlifecare’s Toi Toi Dementia Community, the provider’s first dedicated community for people requiring secure care.

Located at Metlifecare’s Papamoa Beach Village, Toi Toi welcomed its first residents in September 2019. Until then the village had been a community for active retirees seeking an independent but secure living. The decision to introduce 24-bed care home and 16-bed secure dementia unit into the village community met with some resistance, but over time, a well-thought-out education and awareness programme has not only convinced existing residents of the benefits of onsite care but has been critical in uniting villagers with those living in the care facility.

“A lot of it has been about building awareness and breaking down stigmas,” said Mary.

“We began engaging with village residents before construction was even underway. Initially many of them were hesitant about having a dementia community in their village, so I worked with them to allay their fears, and help them understand the benefits. It was a big educational journey.”

This work has been ongoing and has led to the recent launch of a new brain health initiative which is currently being piloted at the village. If successful, it will be rolled out across Metlifecare’s other Bay of Plenty villages, and eventually, all its villages nationwide.

“The biggest thing I hope this programme achieves is shifting the stigma around dementia. Instead of people shying away from it, I want them to start thinking ‘how can I support this person and what can I do to help?’. Studies among the elderly show that in order to be emotionally well, you actually have to care about others – so by supporting people with dementia, you are not just helping them, but you are also helping yourself.”

To get the ball rolling, Mary has hosted seminars for village residents at Papamoa Beach Village and sister village Bayswater, helping residents better understand dementia and those living with it.

“People have a lot of preconceived ideas about dementia – a lack of understanding is the main cause for stigma. We want to encourage our village residents not to be frightened, we want them to be happy to walk past our care homes and say hi to the residents. It’s important that our Toi Toi and care home residents feel part of the Papamoa Beach Village community.”

The response so far has been outstanding.

“At the end of one of the seminars, a resident stood up and asked, ‘how can we help? I said, ‘can anyone sew’? A few people put their hands up and now we have an awesome group of village residents who have been sewing beautiful clothing protectors for our care home residents. We use them all the time now and they look lovely and are so much nicer in terms of our residents’ dignity.”

Other village residents have knitted fiddle muffs (woollen muffs with bells and other fiddle items sewn into them), and the village ukulele group now put on regular concerts for the care home and Toi Toi community.

“Fiddle muffs are nothing new – but the fact that our village residents lovingly crafted them for those in our Toi Toi community highlights the success we are having in breaking down those barriers.”

While a big part of the new brain health programme focuses on building a bridge between independent living residents and those in the dementia community, Mary said promoting brain health is another key pillar.

“It’s also about looking after the people we already have in the village to give them the best shot of staying brain fit – teaching them the importance of eating well, physical and mental exercise, staying connected, getting their hearing checked, and mixing with different age groups so they don’t get rigidity of thought.”

As part of the new initiative, Metlifecare brain health champions have been identified and research partnerships are being explored. Educational sessions are also being rolled out for the families of care home residents, to help them better understand dementia and life at our Metlifecare care homes.

“We’re educating families on how we manage behaviours causing concern, our restraint-free philosophy, and our resident-directed care model. Toi Toi features Metlifecare’s award-winning homestead design that is proving so successful in our other new care homes. It allows residents to live the way they want in a home-like environment, with their care being individually designed around their unique needs.”

Ultimately Mary hopes to develop a best-in-class brain health programme that can help not just Metlifecare residents, but all New Zealanders, as they navigate the ageing process.