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Can social prescribing help with mild dementia and cognitive impairment?

Social prescribing for dementia

Social prescribing has been much in the news over the last year, but many of us have a fuzzy idea of what it is and whether it can be useful.

The idea is that a health professional, such as a GP or other primary health workers, can prescribe activities such as exercise or joining an arts group to address many issues, including mental health. Dementia gets a mention on the list, and there’s a growing belief that the earlier social prescribing can be implemented – pre-diagnosis and for those with slight cognitive impairment – the better the effect.

What sort of activities are we talking about?

The plan is that whatever activity appeals, it’s done as part of a social activity. That’s not necessarily a large group together, as that might be uncomfortable for some. And in these days of coronavirus many of the activities have to take place online, or at least socially distanced. But it can be done.

Activities we know that are regularly enjoyed include:

  • Gardening
  • Book reading
  • Walking
  • Creative writing
  • Dancing
  • Museum visits
  • Volunteering

How social prescribing works

How the system works varies not just across the UK authorities, but from health practice to health practice. There are varying levels of enthusiasm for prescribing.

But if a health professional does prescribe this course of action, they will probably direct their patient to a ‘link worker’. There are actually around 70 different names for this role around the country, including ‘signposter’ and ‘well-being coordinary’, so that’s another cloudy area.

However, once the link has been established, the idea is that the link worker spends perhaps an hour with the patient to create a personalised plan of action.

Provision of services is generally very local, which makes sense as social interaction is high on the agenda. And it’s often delivered by voluntary groups who may be able to offer specialist skills in some areas, but in any case can offer support and encouragement to try a new skill or refresh an old one.

What are the benefits?

People who live with mild dementia have reported a wide range of upsides to taking part in social prescribing activities, such as:

  • A regular and enjoyable activity in the diary giving a refreshed purpose to life
  • Improved mood and self-esteem
  • Improved verbal recall through conversation

What are the drawbacks?

From the patient point of view, there aren’t many downsides. However, social prescribing is still in its infancy, so research is still being carried out as to how effective it is – and how cost-effective it is for the NHS.

How can we access social prescribing?

The first port of call is probably the GP practice, but if they’re not yet up to speed on what’s available and who can provide services, then it’s worth talking to other professionals and charities.

Sometimes the local National Health Trust can provide signposts, or if you’re in touch with other healthcare professionals, they may be a good starting point.

Most services are necessarily provided by local groups, frequently volunteers, so a call to a local volunteer centre may give you some ideas. Also worth a look is the Alzheimer’s Society, which is currently collecting details of groups who can offer a wide range of services.

Photo by Henry Xu on Unsplash

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