Michelle Monnes-Thomas talks about her dementia work and how it affects her legal practice
As a private client solicitor, I see clients daily from all walks of life.
They have stories to tell, and medical conditions that can affect the way they are able to communicate; how they wish to be seen (at the office or in their home); and the ways in which they may or may not be able to provide instructions.
Through my work, I noticed that dementia was becoming more and more prevalent and I felt that I was knowledgeable about the condition. However, nothing could have prepared me for when dementia came into my personal life and my grandma was diagnosed with vascular dementia.
My grandma’s dementia journey was the catalyst for the work that I now do with dementia within my firm and the community.
It was at the stage of my grandma’s diagnosis that I realised I needed to educate myself about dementia so that I could try to support my grandma and also my family. I initially attended a dementia friends session at a local care home.
The Alzheimer’s Society’s Dementia Friends programme is the biggest ever initiative to change people’s perceptions of dementia and aims to transform the way the nation thinks, acts and talks about the condition.
According to the Alzheimer’s Society there are around 850,000 people with dementia in the UK. This is projected to rise to 1.6 million by 2040. This year 225,000 people will develop dementia – that’s one person every three minutes.
Further figures include:
- 1 in 6 people over the age of 80 have dementia.
- 70 per cent of people in care homes have dementia or severe memory problems.
- There are over 42,000 people under 65 with dementia in the UK.
- More than 25,000 people from black, Asian and minority ethnic groups in the UK are affected.
After my grandma passed away, two years on from her diagnosis, I became a dementia friends champion supported by my firm FBC Manby Bowdler.
This meant that I could run my own dementia friends sessions and continue my passion for wanting to change people’s perception; to remove the stigma and fear around the condition; to help people and support those living with dementia; and create dementia friends in my grandma’s memory.
My firm is incredibly supportive of me becoming a dementia friends champion. I head up dementia awareness and initiatives within the firm and deliver dementia friends sessions to my colleagues across all offices – which is an ongoing project.
The firm wants to ensure that any new col- league joining our organisation is aware of our support to those living with dementia; and that we want to be an inclusive firm.
As part of our induction process, all our new starters are given a leaflet advising them that I am the dementia friends champion in the firm, and if they would like to attend a dementia friends session and become a dementia friend then they can contact me.
The firm is proud of our dementia friends (we have 137 at the moment) and the response and reaction to the sessions show that they have been embraced by all of my colleagues – from support staff through to the equity partnership.
The sessions have been really beneficial for our firm and all 137 of us wear our dementia friends badges with pride. We let our clients know that we are dementia friends – that they can come to us for legal help; that we understand the condition; and we endeavor to support them with legal services in an under- standing environment.
One of my personal highlights as a dementia friends champion, supported by my firm, was delivering a dementia friends session with another champion from the Alzheimer’s Society as part of Dementia Action week. This took place on stage at a local theatre to over 100 individuals and the session was broadcast on local radio.
The sessions have not only enabled me and my firm to support our clients and colleagues, but also our other professional colleagues, including accountants, health care professionals, staff at the Grand Theatre in Wolverhampton and independent financial advisors. It has been a privilege to do so, and continues to be a topic of conversation and resource that we can use and assist our networks with.
It is not just legal services and the profession itself that can benefit from an increased understanding and awareness of dementia. It’s essential for us to understand and support the ways in which clients can still be valued and treated with respect, and engaged and involved in the financial aspects of their life until a stage that they may no longer be able to.
As an organisation, we have taken practical steps to ensure we are inclusive and supportive. One of the achievements we are most proud of is our successful application to the National Dementia Action Alliance to become part of our local Dementia Action Alliances in Wolverhampton and in Telford.
In doing so, we committed to certain actions such as continuing to run dementia friends sessions, audit and improve our communication, advice and offices to meet the needs of people with dementia and ensure we deliver advice sympathetically.
Commitments also included making adjustments to how we greet our clients and ensuring employees are kept informed and actively encouraged to attend dementia friends information sessions.
We continually review those actions and attend our local alliance meetings where we get to discuss dementia and what’s happening in the geographical areas where we operate, and share knowledge and expertise.
The firm was also awarded dementia friendly status as recognition to the contributions we have made to the Wolverhampton Dementia Action Alliance and the work that we have done as a firm to help those living with dementia.
We also introduced differences within the firm to try to assist those clients who came to us for legal services. These were as simple as making our reception team aware that if the client has dementia, they need to speak with them in a calm, clear manner; and to think about their body language.
Those colleagues are encouraged to come out from behind the reception desk to take the client through to the meeting room; ensuring that the individual they are there to see is informed straight away so that the fee-earner can ensure the client is not getting anxious or disorientated while left in an unfamiliar room in the building.
Through the dementia friends initiative I have become aware that people living with dementia can find that their communication skills are affected. So, I’ve adapted the way in which I take will or lasting power of attorney instructions if I am aware that my client has dementia.
Also, if it becomes apparent to me (or I am made aware they can have communication issues) I will use shorter sentences, speak in a clear tone and make sure my body language matches what I am advising them about. I will also reduce distractions, so I might shut the blinds in the meeting room, unplug the phone in case it rings, and ensure I’m in a quiet meeting room away from any passing foot traffic or the hub of reception.
My journey with dementia also means that I think about presentation in relation to the instructions I am taking. I will use pictures and diagrams to help that client communicate with me in a different way so that they can still access the legal service that they have come
to talk to me about (though my art teacher in high school will validate that my art skills leave a lot to be desired).
That subtle change to the way I can communicate with that client helps them immensely, and enables them to get their affairs in order before the condition progresses and they are no longer able to do so.
My colleagues in the private client team who have attended the dementia friends sessions were able to think about the language that they use and the ways in which they present material to the clients.
It has had a profound effect on us as an organisation and as a department. It is now firmly embedded in the firm’s ethos. This means we all adapt the way that we present information when meeting with clients and the language that we use.
If you are unsure about a client’s capacity to provide instructions, consider obtaining medical opinion. Have regard to sections 2 and 3 of the Mental Capacity Act and be familiar with Law Society practice notes regarding capacity.
Banks v Goodfellow (1870) still remains the go to case and should be considered when taking instructions for a will. There are also further resources through the British Medical Council, the Law Society and charity websites on the issue, and steps you can take if you have doubts or are unsure how to proceed.
It can be invaluable to consider seeing the client at a different time or in a new environment that they might feel more comfortable in, avoiding those times of day that they may not be at their best. If in doubt, don’t forge ahead anyway with the client’s instructions and expose yourself to future risk; and don’t be dismissive of your client.
We have sponsored a Memory Café which has enabled individuals living with dementia – and their loved ones and carers – to enjoy the theatre and other entertainment again. This has been a truly proud and humbling project for us as a firm and feedback has been so emotive.
It allows those attending to relax in a safe environment and be whisked back to their youth and early years, and socialise with others who are also living with the condition.
I have also been keen to ensure that as a firm we get involved in activities for Dementia Action Week and we have had great and rewarding staff engagement during the week.
We have created canvases with what dementia means to us (this was done across all our offices). We have run dementia friends sessions with third parties within our network, such as account- ants and independent financial advisors.
We have held afternoon tea events with clients and decorated biscuits and cupcakes. A memorable session we ran was with another Dementia Action Alliance member where we created fiddle quilting squares for individuals with dementia.
In another session, we created a famous movie stars quiz and volunteered at a local care home for the afternoon. Also, each year my colleagues and I get together to take part in the Alzheimer’s Society Memory Walks.
This is a great way to fundraise, give back and continue our journey with dementia awareness and understanding as a firm. We see those living with the condition taking part and the whole support network getting involved.
As providers of legal services, it’s important that we have an awareness of dementia and ensure that those living with a diagnosis can still access legal services where possible.
We have an aging population and statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society show that anyone can be affected and the numbers of people developing the condition will continue to rise.
I am passionate about helping the clients I see. I feel privileged that I can use my career and the network that I have to raise awareness of dementia – and the ways in which the profession can help those living with the diagnosis, and their loved ones and carers.
Michelle Monnes-Thomas is a partner at FBC Manby Bowdler fbcmb.co.uk