Charities join forces to prevent crisis among military dementia carers

The largest survey of its kind by a national military charity will lead to life-changing support being offered to Armed Forces personnel caring for loved ones with dementia.

The survey conducted by the RAF Association – the charity that supports the RAF family’s wellbeing – revealed the unique circumstances of military personnel battling to provide personal care for relatives from afar.

The research shows there are increased pressures on carers serving in the military due to often being deployed outside of their home area, sometimes at short notice and overseas.

According to Alzheimer’s Society, more than 112,000 people working across all employment sectors have had to give up their job in the past year, with many retiring early because of their caring commitments.

The RAF Association’s Director of Welfare and Policy, Rory O’Connor, said the Association was now working with Alzheimer’s Society to develop solutions to help prevent a workplace crisis in the Armed Forces.

He said: “Apart from very limited data published through the MoD in 2017, no information was previously available to us that we could use to tailor key welfare services to personnel needs.

“We knew it was imperative to understand the characteristics of the people our charity serves, so we undertook our own survey of over 4,000 people – the largest charity survey of the RAF family ever conducted – during 2018.

“Analysis of the results showed that around 15% of respondents had an unpaid carer responsibility for someone with a health problem, with the most frequently cited condition being dementia.

“Of course, people who join the military understand that there will be challenges and sacrifices as part of their role, but life can change dramatically and beyond all recognition when an ageing parent is diagnosed with dementia.

“Suddenly, personnel working a long way from home can be faced with an impossible situation. Trying to co-ordinate or provide care from a distance, when you can’t be there in person, can be agonisingly frustrating.”

He added that permission given by the RAF for flexible working in many cases was helping tremendously, and both charities now wanted to build on employer support by providing bespoke welfare services for carers.

Together with Alzheimer’s Society, the RAF Association is currently developing a raft of support initiatives based on interviews conducted earlier this year with personnel with carer responsibilities.

A range of prototype initiatives will be tested by RAF personnel in the coming weeks, with a view to rolling them out to the RAF as quickly as possible. It is hoped the initiatives will then provide a framework for other charities to use to support carers serving in the other Armed Forces.

Squadron Leader Richard Lewis (41), stationed at High Wycombe, has been involved in the RAF Association and Alzheimer’s Society research. Richard’s father died as the result of Alzheimer’s Disease, and his mother, Freda, was diagnosed four years ago.

Charities join forces to prevent crisis among military dementia carers
Richard Lewis

Richard, who has served with the RAF for 16 years, said: “I was actually considering leaving my job at one point because I was travelling long distances in order to take on my share of carer responsibilities alongside my sister.

“Fortunately, I was offered a more flexible working arrangement, so I have been able to stay with the RAF while supporting my mother.”

He said knowing the RAF Association and Alzheimer’s Society were looking to support people in similar situations was hugely encouraging.

Another research participant is 33-year-old Flight Lieutenant Rosie Brooks, whose mother was diagnosed with early-stage Alzheimer’s Disease early this year. The strain of trying to care for her mother, Dawn, who lives in Worcester, while serving in the RAF in Whitehall soon began to take its toll on Rosie.

Charities join forces to prevent crisis among military dementia carers
Flight Lieutenant Rosie Brooks, speaking at the RAF Association’s inaugural national Research Symposium in London.

She said: “My whole life was flipped upside-down overnight. I found the social care system difficult to navigate, and I struggled to look after my Mum properly.

“While the RAF has helped a great deal by enabling me to work flexibly, it’s still frustrating to only be able to give my Mum a couple of days per week.”

Alzheimer’s Society Innovation Programme Manager Simon Lord said: “Caring for a person living with dementia can affect people in different ways. Living or working in a different location to someone with dementia can be particularly challenging.

“Using an innovative approach, we have helped the RAF Association to develop ideas for solutions. It is extremely encouraging to see two of these solutions now being built and tested.”

The carer-support mechanisms being trialled are specifically designed for military personnel.

The aim is to provide a lifeline for those struggling with a care role or a relative’s diagnosis, connecting those with similar experiences and providing a safe space to share their stories and access resources.

Nick Bunting, Secretary-General of the RAF Association, speaking at the Association’s inaugural national Research Symposium in London.

Launching the initiative’s testing phase at the RAF Association’s inaugural national Research Symposium in London, Association Secretary-General Nick Bunting said the charity would be increasingly relying on research to tailor all of its services to beneficiaries’ needs.

He said: “In a fast-changing social landscape, it’s more important than ever to fully understand the needs of the people we serve.

“The issues we have already identified in relation to carers in the RAF will, I’m sure, be relevant to all three of the Armed Forces, so our work with Alzheimer’s Society could ultimately help many thousands of people for years to come.”