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A reluctance to ask for help could be exacerbating the problems caused by dementia in farming communities, according to new research from Plymouth University.

A year-long study into the impact of dementia in the countryside identified four key areas of concern that must be addressed if the issue is to be managed.  

1. The farm environment

The fact that farms are dangerous places is a concern, with hazards such as machinery, livestock and slurry pits.

The interviews also showed that animal welfare standards can be difficult to maintain for farmers affected by dementia.

See also: Nurses visit livestock mart to give health checks

Another area highlighted was the stress that can be caused when running a farm whilst also caring for a family member suffering from dementia.

2. A reluctance to ask for help

The interviews showed that farmers can be reluctant to ask for help and whilst they might be worried about what could happen to the farm, they are reluctant to take steps to address the issue.

This can lead to isolation and a desire to hide problems from others.

Because farmers often work beyond the state retirement age, dementia, which is more prevalent among older populations, can be a problem for farm businesses.

This is worsened if there is a lack of succession planning.

Researcher Dr. Claire Kelly said: “Taking over financial responsibility for the farm can take many months to sort out if someone becomes incapacitated. In the meantime, however, the farm needs to continue to function as a business.

Fodder needs to be bought, animals bought and sold, etc, which can be very difficult if the farm business is solely in the name of the person living with dementia.”

3.   Support services

A lack of awareness of the support available is an issue, as well as the difficulty of accessing support services, both in terms of time and money.

Dr. Richard Yarwood, who was involved in the study, said: “There was a perception that types of support are often urban-focused and inappropriate for people who have lived and worked outdoors all their lives and been very independent.

Pride, a tradition of self-reliance and the desire for privacy often prevent people from asking for help.”

4. Changing rural communities

The research pointed out that the change in rural communities might make it harder for farmers to seek support. With fewer people in the countryside working in farming, a reliance on community help may be misplaced as widespread farming knowledge is lacking.

The research

The research project was funded by The Seale-Hayne Educational Trust, with support from The Farming Community Network.

“Dementia is a growing health problem, with an anticipated increase in the number of cases of 156 per cent between now and 2051, according to statistics from the Alzheimer’s Society.

“This equates to two million people, and the burden will fall on rural areas where there are significantly higher proportions of elderly people,” said Ian Sherriff, Academic Partnership Lead for Dementia at Plymouth University.

“The burden will impact farming businesses, communities and the rural economy, yet little is known about how this impact will manifest itself and what kind of specialist care networks will need to be in place to tackle it.

“Our research has gone some way to identifying and addressing concerns, and we are looking forward to working with the farming community, and the agencies and organisations that support it, to implement our recommendations.”

Sixteen farmers from Devon, as well as seven professionals who work with and support farmers living with dementia, were interviewed as part of the pilot study.

The study made several recommendations:

  1. Where possible farmers should plan ahead for the eventuality of ill health (including dementia) or retirement. This should include Lasting Powers of Attorney, succession planning and so on.
  2. There is a need for joined-up thinking and working between statutory agencies, dementia support organisations and rural communities, with initiatives such as dementia-friendly parishes. 
  3. Farmers can be reluctant to ask for help, fearing a loss of privacy, yet they need help to network with each other. Mutual support and experience sharing is a particularly valuable way for farmers who are reluctant to engage with formal agencies to gain access to farming-specific help and information on living well with dementia. Helping farmers to share experiences with farmers in other areas of the UK, for example, would provide that mutual support without having to share information with those close to home or on neighbouring farms.
  4. There is a need for all agencies working with farmers to undergo dementia training. Agencies working with farmers can become dementia friends.
  5. Lessons can be learnt from initiatives to combat farming stress. The main concern is that farmers and their families recognise issues and seek support. 

Source: These are the recommendations made by researchers from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at Plymouth University.