WEARSIDE MATTERS: Essence support changing lives in Sunderland

Brian Hamilton, who has been using the Essence Service run by Age UK Sunderland.
Brian Hamilton, who has been using the Essence Service run by Age UK Sunderland.
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A pioneering service that delivers life-changing support to those living with dementia and their carers has been praised by a Sunderland couple.

Age UK Sunderland’s Essence Service offers groundbreaking support, providing support and information for people recently diagnosed with dementia, as well as guidance and help for carers and loved ones.

Dementia – an umbrella term to explain different conditions with similar symptoms, such as memory loss, confusion and a change in behavior and communication – affects more than 850,000 people nationally, a figure that continues to rise.

Sunderland couple, Brian and Julie Hamilton, have been using the Essence Service – which is run by Age UK Sunderland with support from Sunderland Carers’ Centre and The Alzheimer’s Society – and have described the impact it has had on his life.

Brian Hamilton, 65, from Houghton-le-Spring, was diagnosed with dementia and vascular dementia in 2012. He said: “Before I was referred to the Essence Service, I used to attend coffee mornings, but this is far friendlier. It’s not just giving you a number to call for help, you can just walk in any time. I haven’t had to make appointments, just call in and someone will make a cuppa and have a chat with me to see how I’m doing.

“Everybody there knows me, and if I’ve got any problems, they’re discussed and a solution is found.”

Essence is specifically for people across the city of Sunderland and is designed to be the first port of call for support once a person or loved one has been diagnosed with dementia. It offers advice, information and practical support for everyone impacted by the onset of the condition.

“Once you’re in there, you’re given all the information to understand the condition and how the service will help, how to keep in touch with people and more or less, how to live a normal life,” said Brian.

The service – which is funded by Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) – is free to access and focuses on taking the fear out of dementia diagnosis. As well as information and support, dementia sufferers and carers can take part in several activities specifically designed to stimulate the brain and slow the advancement of the condition.

Brian added: “If my wife has any questions or needs help, she can call them and somebody will take her through a step by step guide of how to deal with the issue. If she’s got any queries about when I get worse down the line, when she’ll need more help, they are there for her.

“My wife is a shy and quiet person and likes to keep herself to herself, but she feels comfortable with the Essence Service. She really appreciates the people running it keeping her on the right lines about how to treat me.

Sunderland Carers’ Centre is a vital part of Essence, where carers can access practical support, receive help on how to help someone with dementia and share coping strategies with each other.

“We recognize the emotional strain that a dementia diagnosis can put on a person and their carers – as well as the practical pressure of supporting that person to live a full and normal life,” said Graham Burt, chief executive of the charity, based in Thompson Park, Sunderland.

The Essence team understands the weight of emotions and anxiety that comes with a diagnosis and works with individuals, family and carers to answer questions and talk through choices they may have to make regarding care. Advice is also available on legal, housing and financial issues.

“It can be both a blessing and a heartbreak to learn you have dementia,” said Age UK Sunderland director, Alan Patchett.

“It’s sometimes a relief for people who perhaps have found themselves experiencing the often distressing early signs of dementia. They finally understand what has been going on. At the same time, though, it can be a desperately anxious time, because so many of us have seen how later stages of dementia can take away the essence of a person and nobody wants to go through that.”

This is an experience that Brian himself knew all too well. “I’m settled now, but when I was first diagnosed I just received a letter, and then it was “bye!”. So, for the first few months I was completely on my own. It was horrendous because I didn’t know that you can have dementia for years before it worsens.

“I thought once I was diagnosed, within a couple of months I wouldn’t know my kids or my grandkids and I actually went through a very dark period at the time, because I didn’t want my wife and family to go through having to look after me.

“The people at Essence have totally changed my outlook. Now I don’t worry at all. If I’ve got anything to say or if I’m worried about anything, I go to the Essence or ring them. It’s a big life change from what it was then to how it is now.

“I have much more confidence and enjoy working with the different groups – where you’re not just thrown in to an old group or a young group. I would urge anyone diagnosed with dementia to give it a try.”

For more information about The Essence Service, visit www.ageuk.org.uk/sunderland and search for The Essence Service or call 0191 5221310.