Support workers lacked knowledge of early indicators of dementia in people with learning disabilities

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People with learning disabilities have been found to have increased risk of developing mental health problems. The knowledge of mental health issues amongst support workers however is also known to be sometimes lacking. The authors of this study were interested in looking at what support workers knew about mental health of older people with learning disabilities and to consider what could be done to improve this knowledge base.

What they did was ask 14 support workers to complete a questionnaire which provided three vignettes looking at progressively worsening indicators of dementia in an older person with learning disabilities. The support workers were asked to explain what they thought might be happening and what they would do to support the person. They carried out a thematic analysis of the data from the questionnaires.

What they found was that few of the support workers had undergone any training in mental health issues, with only one having had training relating to supporting older people with learning disabilities. They proved generally poor at judging early and intermediate indicators of dementia, but much better at identifying the later signs. What was interesting to the researchers however is that the support workers in their study described these later signs advanced indicators as those associated with the onset of dementia.

They did find however, that having identified the signs, the actions they proposed were appropriate, for example, systematic observation and referral on to appropriate professional help. When asked about potential causation they often considered abuse as a causal factor.

The authors suggest that this small study adds to the evidence base regarding staff responses to dementia and identifies the need for training in the mental health needs of older people and in the early identification of indicators of dementia in people with learning disabilities.

Support workers’ knowledge about dementia: a vignette study, Herron D & Priest H, in Advances in Mental Health and Intellectual Disabilities, 7 1, 27 – 39

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John Northfield

After qualifying as a social worker, John worked in community learning disability teams before getting involved in a number of long-stay hospital closure programmes, working to develop individual plans for people moving into their own homes. He worked for BILD, helping to develop the Quality Network and was editorial lead for the NHS electronic library learning disabilities specialist collection. This led him to found the Learning Disabilities Elf site with Andre Tomlin as a way of making the evidence accessible to practitioners in health and social care. Most recently he has worked as part of Mencap's national quality team and also been involved in a number of national website developments, including the General Medical Council's learning disabilities site.

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