Farmers and other rural residents are reluctant to seek crucial help to cope with the devastating onset of dementia in their families for a whole variety of reasons, according to new research by academics.
In what is thought to be the first major study by a UK university into the impact of dementia specifically in farming and rural communities, researchers say a perception prevails in the countryside of support for people living with dementia being urban-focused and inappropriate for those who have lived and worked outdoors all their lives.
Pride, a tradition of self-reliance and the desire for privacy often prevent people from asking for help, the study found.
Helen Benson, regional co-ordinator of the Farming Community Network whose volunteers support farming families with health issues, said: “Our farming communities look after their elderly residents within the farming family probably more than any other sector.”
Members of the FCN in Yorkshire have recently received training on how to support people with dementia from the Ryedale branch of the Alzheimer’s Society’s Side by Side project, but the task of reaching out to rural communities is not easy, said Helen Benson.
Mrs Benson said: “Members of the rural community also don’t seek help because of fear that a loved one is going to be taken away and put in a home.
“The same reluctance to seek help goes for farming families where someone has a disability. We get quite a lot of people continuing to farm, not because there is money in it, but for no other reason they have got a member of the family who couldn’t work anywhere else.
“There’s lots of help out there but it’s very hard to reach out to these people.”
The study by Plymouth University involved interviews with 16 farmers in Devon and seven professionals from organisations that work with and support farmers living with dementia.
University academics say a more co-ordinated approach to tackle the disorder is needed.
Dr Claire Kelly, one of the academics involved in the year-long study of farmers attitudes to dementia, said farmers feel they have a lot to lose when the disorder is diagnosed in the family.
“Farming and the farm itself are more than merely business interests; they are an important part of lifestyle and identity,” Dr Kelly said.
“There is therefore justifiable fear that a diagnosis of dementia can lead to the loss of the farm, the home and everything that is familiar.”
To better support farmers dealing with dementia, academics recommend: farmers plan ahead for the eventuality of illness including Lasting Powers of Attorney and succession planning; better joined up working between statutory agencies, dementia support groups and communities; a national network for farmers to share their experiences; agencies delivering dementia training to farmers; and that lessons are learnt from initiatives to combat stress so that farmers recognise issues and seek help.
Ian Sherriff, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Rural Dementia Friendly Taste and Finish Group, who supported the research, said it was imperative these recommendations are acted upon with the number of dementia cases expected to rise by 156 per cent between now and 2051.
Mr Sherriff said: “This equates to two million people, and the burden will fall on rural areas where there are significantly higher proportions of elderly people.”
In North Yorkshire alone, it is estimated that about 11,500 people live with dementia, with 60 per cent of cases going undiagnosed - a figure that is expected to be nearly 16,000 sufferers by 2021.
Adam Bedford, regional director at the National Farmers’ Union, said: “It’s not surprising that this research has identified a reluctance to access health support services - farmers are known for putting their work and responsibilities first. This is something the NFU is concerned about, especially as farming can be an isolated and stressful occupation.
“We work closely with organisations including FCN, RABI and the Addington Fund to try and ensure our members get help when they need it.”