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PEOPLE living with dementia benefit from significant improvements in the quality of their life when they can access local support centres, new research evaluated by the University of Worcester has revealed.

A major pilot programme carried out in the UK, Italy and Poland called the Meeting Dem Project has shown that people experienced improved self-esteem and less disturbed behaviour by attending a regular meeting centre close to their home where they could interact with others in a similar situation.

Originally developed in the Netherlands, the meeting centres help people and their families adjust to living with dementia by offering exercise, educational sessions, one-to-one meetings with support workers and advisers, as well as therapeutic activities.

In the past two years, two pilot centres were set up in the UK – one in Droitwich, Worcestershire, and another in Leominster, in Herefordshire - with funding from the Alzheimer’s Society and Herefordshire Council, along with centres in Italy and Poland.

Experts at the University of Worcester’s Association for Dementia Studies (ADS) have now completed an evaluation of their effectiveness and found that more than half of meeting centre users surveyed noticed an improvement in their self-esteem and more than a third displayed fewer symptoms of disturbed behaviour. Two thirds of family carers reported coping better with their loved ones’ symptoms.

One man attending the Droitwich Meeting Centre said: “When I look around, there are many welcoming faces and they are smiling. I feel we must support one another and try and help each other. We all need a bit of encouragement and we've all got something to offer.”

A Leominster man, who attends a meeting centre, said: “It wouldn't be over-dramatic to say it saved my life. When I was diagnosed, I thought what am I going to do? From the word go, it was just right. People were welcoming, there were projects and things to do. The alternative for me would be to sit at home on my own. It's a no-brainer."

A carer, whose husband lives with dementia, said: “We were at home all the time and I was going under mentally and physically. The meeting centre was my saviour. I do have a bit of time to myself now and it is lovely. He's fine when he comes back and it makes me feel so much better."

Now Professor Dawn Brooker, the director of the University’s Association for Dementia Studies, who led the study, has called for the service to be rolled out across towns in the UK and become part of the standardised care service for people with dementia.

She said: “There has been a tendency in the UK to build services at scale that cover ever wider geographical areas or to assume that home-based support with web-based connectivity will provide people with all they need.

“Meeting centres are local, friendly and connect people to each other and to their sense of community. Our research shows hard evidence that this brings benefit to people compared to the usual care.

“Support for families and for people affected by dementia is often fragmented and varies tremendously across the country. The Meeting Centres Support Programme can provide integrated, easy access support to people with dementia and their families enabling them to live longer independently with a better quality of life.”

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As part of a three-year EU Joint Programme Neurodegenerative Disease (JPND) funded MeetingDem research programme, centres were set up, with funding from the Alzheimer’s Society and Herefordshire Council, in Droitwich, Worcestershire, in September 2015 and Leominster, in Herefordshire, in February 2016.

Research teams collected feedback from 85 people with dementia and 93 family carers when they started using the meeting centres and again six months later. They compared this to 74 people with dementia and 74 carers who were instead using whatever services were commonly available in each country.

Those attending the meeting centres had more advanced dementia and after six months reported significantly better on health and well-being than their counterparts, particularly in quality of life.

More than half (57 per cent) of people living with dementia who attended the meeting centres reported an improvement in self-esteem, compared to 41 per cent of those receiving usual care. Just under a third (32 per cent) of family carers felt less lonely, compared to 18 per cent in the usual care group.

At the beginning of the study, those attending the meeting centres tended to display more symptoms of disturbed behaviour than those receiving usual care. But, after six months using the meeting centre, 36 per cent of individuals displayed fewer symptoms and 60 per cent of family carers reported a decrease in the emotional distress caused by these symptoms. In the usual care group, such symptoms increased for 47 per cent of those surveyed.

More information about the MeetingDem Project visit http://www.worcester.ac.uk/discover/meetingdem-jpnd.html and http://www.meetingdem.eu/