Concerns over Welsh-speaking care patients with dementia

Welsh-speaking dementia patients could be left to struggle because of a lack of Welsh-language provision within the health service, campaigners have said.

The Union of Welsh Independent Churches is lobbying the Welsh Government amid concerns there is no legal obligation to provide patients with Welsh-speaking care staff.

It says those who speak Welsh as their first language can lose the ability to speak and understand English as the disease progresses and in such cases, care and treatment through the medium of Welsh is a clinical necessity.

The Union, which has been campaigning on the issue for several years, said there is an urgent need to implement new guidelines on providing services through the medium of Welsh in hospitals and care homes.

“It is a medical fact that when a person who has learnt a second language suffers dementia, that language is the first to disappear from his or her memory,” said spokesman Alun Lenny.

“This is the experience of hundreds of Welsh-speaking patients. To them, not being able to communicate with care staff in Welsh causes additional distress and confusion.”

The Welsh Government has said that language equality and cultural identity are embedded in current health and social care policy, but the Union said a failure to respect this in practice causes added distress to vulnerable and older people, in particular those with dementia.

“There are several kinds of dementia, all with the same result: the patient loses the ability to think,” said Mr Lenny.

More than 40,000 Welsh people suffer from dementia, costing the NHS in Wales more than £900m a year.

By 2021, the number of people with dementia across Wales is projected to increase by 31% and by as much as 44% in some rural areas.

Sue Phelps, acting director of Wales Alzheimer’s Society, said language provision was a fundamental part of quality care.

“Being in hospital and other care settings is often confusing and frightening for people with dementia, but small changes can help make their stay more comfortable.

“Making sure that staff are able to understand the individual needs of a person with dementia is fundamental to deliver good dementia quality care; for example being able to express themselves in the language of their choice.”

Muriel Evans from Carmarthenshire, whose Welsh- speaking mother, Nancy Davies, suffered with dementia said Welsh-language care had been vital for the 88-year-old.

“We were fortunate that mum was cared for in a residential home in Carmarthen where the majority of staff spoke Welsh, but it would have been incredibly distressing if that had not been the case.”

Mrs Davies, who was cared for at a local authority-run home, had even insisted that her funeral service was conducted entirely in Welsh.

“Being spoken to in her own language was a basic human right and to think that some Welsh patients might not have access to that is dreadful, particularly when their condition can already lead to distress.

“It would also be hugely distressing for family members who entrust their relatives to the care of others. I think being able to communicate in your own language is something we should be able to take for granted.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said the rising number of people with dementia in Wales is a trend which is common across the world.

“There are however some challenges that are specific to Wales, such as bilingualism, which is especially important for those who may only understand or be able to communicate in their first language as their illness progresses.

“As outlined in our Programme for Government, we have established an expert group to look at how Welsh language provision can be strengthened within health and social services…”